My Lords, it is an honour to follow the noble Lord, Lord Knight, and I too congratulate the Government on bringing forward this important online harms White Paper.
I have been speaking out about finding ways to protect the vulnerable and impressionable online for almost two decades now. When I was on the Ofcom Content Board 16 years ago, I continually raised my concerns and pleaded for online regulation. But at the time such ideas were considered by many to be an assault on freedom of expression, and it was thought that the internet was an open space where regulation had no place. How things have changed. Today, through this White Paper, we are now about to change the world and bring morality, integrity and trust to the forefront of the online world for the betterment of humanity.
There is no doubt that the internet is a place not only where the best of human spirit blossoms but where the worst and most sordid elements of the human condition can be expressed, shared and amplified on a global scale. Without doubt, the internet and the digital revolution are changing the world. The Pandora’s box of limitless access to information has been opened and the progress of technology seems unstoppable.
But not all progress take us forward. Emerging evidence shows that children are being exposed to a vast range of online harms: pornography, inappropriate content, online gambling, body shaming, suicide, bullying, eating disorders, online grooming. The list goes on and on. It is not just children who are targeted, but adults, too—especially vulnerable groups and those in public life. They are having to deal with fake news and extreme political, racial and religious ideology, as well as hate crime, fraud and blackmail. The impacts can be life-changing: they can have serious psychological and emotional effects on those who have to endure relentless abuse, which is taking its toll on society’s well-being.
I have dedicated my life to the well-being of children, and it is children who are predominantly at risk from online harms. It is accepted that the internet offers children a range of wonderful opportunities to have fun, create, learn, explore and socialise. But tech firms are failing our children, and it seems that they will not take action until they are forced to. They must establish a duty of care for their customers, who want to be empowered to keep themselves and their children as safe online as they are offline. Currently, insufficient support is in place, so many feel vulnerable online.
Last week, I hosted the launch of the Internet Watch Foundation’s annual report. I declare an interest as one of its champions. For the past 23 years, the IWF has taken on what you might call “the toughest job in the world”: removing thousands of child sexual abuse images from the web. Worryingly, it has told me that the extreme content is getting worse and worse. I wept when I heard harrowing stories of how children, including newborn babies, are being sexually abused and then re-victimised by having their image shared across the world online, again and again.
The IWF welcomes the online harms White Paper and its focus on making the UK the safest place in the world online. The paper fits with the IWF’s charitable objectives and vision of an internet free from child sexual abuse. It calls on the Government to recognise the efficiency and success of its work and to ensure the security of the IWF’s partnership approach in the new regulatory framework proposed in the White Paper. But it is concerned that its partnership model could be swept away accidentally and its ability to remove images of child sexual abuse hindered.
When the IWF was founded in 1996, the internet was a vastly different environment. The tech giants of today, including Google, Facebook and Amazon, did not exist. More and more people are now using the internet. The Government, courts and legislative processes are no longer able to keep pace with that change or predict where the future will take us. Therefore, the IWF is calling on the Government to ensure that any legislative proposals and definitions are nimble enough to be adaptable in future, with as wide an application as possible to keep up with the rate of change and innovation in the tech sector. We know that the size, nature and processes of companies within the internet industry are wide and varied, so the Government must work in tandem with the industry to develop a code of practice to effectively address regulation of the internet in a realistic and enforceable manner and recognise that one size does not fit all.
I sit on the House of Lords Communications Committee, and in our latest report, The Internet: to Regulate or Not to Regulate?, we recommended that a new body, which we call the digital authority, should be established to co-ordinate regulators in the digital world and that this body should continually access regulation in the digital world and make recommendations on where additional powers are necessary. We should also establish an internal centre of expertise on digital trends which will help to scan the horizon for emerging risks and gaps in regulation, to help regulators to implement the law effectively and in the public interest. We foresee the digital authority co-ordinating regulators across different sectors and multiple government departments, so we recommend that it should report to the Cabinet Office and be overseen at the highest level.
I always say that childhood lasts a lifetime. As my noble friend Lord Storey said, schools need to educate children about how to use social media responsibly and be safe online, as supported by the PSHE Association. Parents must be empowered to protect their children through digital literacy advice and support because, for most children today, their childhood is being brutally snatched away from them.
This is a pivotal moment, and the rest of the world is watching to see what measures are put in place to regulate the internet. But we must be wise and learn from experience. For example, if the Digital Economy Act were in front of us today, there is no doubt that social media would not be excluded. It is a glaring omission. Will the Minister confirm that the Government will address the exclusion of social media from age verification for commercial pornography at the earliest opportunity? The BBFC should have the power to ensure that an AV wall is in front of all commercial pornography. It makes no sense not to include social media. I believe that the speed of change in this space is such that we will move to a situation where AV is routinely used for a range of content for different ages, and that this is a good thing.
I welcome the recognition in the White Paper of the BBFC’s age ratings online. However, it is vital that age ratings can be linked to parental controls and filters. I also heard from the BBFC that its classification tool for crowd-rating user-generated content, You Rate It, would be perfect for YouTube where, according to Ofcom’s research, many children now view content. It would mean that parents and children could report abuse. Will the Government be prepared to endorse and encourage crowd rating?
Age verification, which I and many other noble Lords across the House have fought for over many years, will finally become operational in July. The legislation and technical innovations to carry out rigorous and secure age verification will soon, I hope, be taken up by other countries across the world. I believe that this will be the same for the measures proposed in the online harms White Paper.
It is wonderful that the DCMS and the Home Office are working together on this important issue, as we need a holistic approach in which other departments, such as Health, Education and the Treasury, are involved. We all have our part to play if we are to counteract the onslaught of online harm.
I urge the Government to concentrate on bringing in a new regulatory framework that can genuinely make the internet a safer place as soon as possible, because every day we hear more horrific stories of online harm. I look forward to working with the Government to progress this important White Paper. Once again, I congratulate them on producing it, because it shows that we intend to be the leading force in the world when it comes to online protection and safety. My Lords, there ain’t no stopping us now!