Online Harms White Paper - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:00 pm on 30th April 2019.

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Photo of Lord Knight of Weymouth Lord Knight of Weymouth Labour 7:00 pm, 30th April 2019

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, and to precede the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, both of whom have consistently campaigned on the dangers of the internet to children. I agree with what the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans said on gambling; I would support a ban on advertising at football matches.

By way of reminding your Lordships of my interests, particularly as a chief officer at TES, a digital education business, and as chair of xRapid, a health tech business, I will start by reminding the House of the upside of the online world. TES has 11.5 million registered users, and, as a platform for teachers, facilitates the global sharing of teaching resources. This saves teachers buckets of time and helps them access a torrent of quality user-generated content. It is inconceivable without the internet. My other interest trains iPhones to do the work of microscopists in diagnosing malaria, which we are now able to give away to those who need it—laboratory quality at zero marginal cost, thanks to online technology. There are many other examples of technology for good, and if we do not grasp them but instead allow our public services to stagnate, we will be left behind as other nations leapfrog our development.

However, the harm of the internet is also a reality. Many of us are working out how to manage it. I am guilty of normally overindulging on my screen time—I am digitally obese. At home, our seven year-old, Coco, asked us just this week whether we can agree as a family our own code for gaining consent if we want to post images of each other on social media. That is a job for this weekend. But there are areas where self-regulation will not apply and where we need urgent government and legislative action.

I urge your Lordships to take 15 minutes to watch Carole Cadwalladr’s brave TED talk, delivered earlier this month in Vancouver. As the journalist who uncovered the Cambridge Analytica scandal, she has credibility in her charge that our democracy has been broken by Facebook. Her argument is compelling. Communities such as Ebbw Vale, with very few immigrants, voted overwhelmingly for Brexit because of their fear of immigration. Such communities are not consumers of the mainstream, right-wing media that stir that particular pot, but they are consumers of Facebook. She describes Facebook as a “crime scene”, where the likes of Nigel Farage were able to oversee what she uncovered. Who knows how much money from who knows where was able to fund of a firehose of lies through Facebook ads. These were targeted at those who were most vulnerable to believing them, using the illegal hack of personal data from tens of millions of users.

The online harm to individuals, as other noble Lords have talked about, is profound, but there can be no greater harm to a nation state than the catastrophe of Brexit, brought about by referendum won by illegal campaigning—and we allow Nigel Farage to start another party to dupe the nation once more. We desperately need to update our electoral law to prevent this destruction of our democracy, and I hope that the legislation following this White Paper may present some opportunities for us to do so.

I must also say that I commend this White Paper. I inevitably want it to go further, but the core proposals of a duty of care and of a regulator are sound. As the manager of a TES resources platform, I welcome those regulatory burdens. I am particularly delighted to see the duty of care principle. For some time I have been keen to see this well-established legal principle from the physical world come into the virtual world. I was introduced to the notion by Will Perrin and I pay tribute to him and his collaborators at the Carnegie Trust, and to the Government for listening to them. My assumption has been that, when applied, this will generate civil action in the courts by victims against technology operators for the damage caused by their algorithms and other relevant actions. Can the Minister say whether this will be available under the government plans, or will redress be available only through the regulator?

Speaking of victims of algorithms, I am also interested in whether the measures here will apply to the Government themselves and other public bodies. Can the Minister please help me? I have spoken before about the worrying case of the sentencing algorithm used in Wisconsin courts that defence attorneys were prevented from examining. We have had another example closer to home. Last year it came to light that our Home Office had deported potentially thousands of students, using a contractor analysing voice recordings with a machine. They asked the Educational Testing Service to analyse voice files to work out if students were using proxies to sit the English tests for them, and an immigration appeal tribunal in 2016 heard that when ETS’s voice analysis was checked with a human follow-up, the computer had been correct in only 80% of cases—meaning that some 7,000 students had their visas revoked in error.

Given what we know about algorithmic bias, and the growing use of algorithms for public service delivery, it is critical that public bodies are also subject to the measures set out in the White Paper. I would also say that, since the Government are increasingly building technology platforms to compete with the private sector, it would be unfair not to impose the same regulatory burdens upon them as there are on those of us working in the commercial world.

My final point relates to the valid point made in the document that technology can be part of the solution. I agree. But there is a danger that the demands placed on technology companies will assume that they are all of the size and wealth of Facebook, Amazon, Google and Apple. This would be a mistake. They can afford to develop solutions and gain a competitive advantage over smaller businesses as a result. We need to ensure that these measures result in a more, not less, competitive landscape. If there are technology solutions to solve difficult problems such as the copyright infringements that I grapple with or other thefts of intellectual property, those tools should be openly available to platform providers of all sizes.

When Sir Tim Berners-Lee invented the web he had a great vision that it should be for everyone. Earlier this month he said that the internet,

“seemed like a good idea at the time”,

that the world was certainly better for it, but that,

“in the last few years, a different mindset has emerged”.

At the 30-year point, people have become worried about their personal data, but they,

“didn’t think about it very much until Cambridge Analytica”.

The privacy risk, however, “is subtle”, he argued:

“It’s realising that all this user generated data is being used to build profiles of me and everyone like me—for targeted ads and more importantly, voting manipulation. It’s not about the privacy of photographs, but where my data is abused”.

We need new duties on technology companies and we need a regulator with teeth. I wish the Government well and I hope that we will see legislation on this very soon.