Online Harms White Paper - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:25 pm on 30th April 2019.

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Photo of Lord Haskel Lord Haskel Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords) 7:25 pm, 30th April 2019

As my noble friend Lord Knight mentioned, earlier this year we celebrated 30 years of the internet and the BBC made a series of programmes about its development. One was about how content that spreads knowledge and information has been used to undermine many of the values of our society, so doing the harm that we are debating. This meant that the internet platforms had seriously to think about monitoring content. They could not rely on people reporting harmful content because many had sought out the material on purpose.

We were then shown how the monitoring takes place. There are algorithms looking for harmful phrases, words or images, but apparently these can be easily fooled. Therefore, a major part is human monitoring, and we saw how one of the major platforms does this. It employs hundreds of people in Malaysia and the Philippines to scan posts for things such as decency, child abuse and threats—things that are already illegal on the internet. It was interesting to see the monitors at work. Decisions are instantaneous. Where perhaps the Minister or I would want to give a matter more consideration, there is no time, because monitors have to fulfil their quotas or their pay is docked.

This is the practicality of monitoring the internet. When the duty of care required by the White Paper becomes law, companies and regulators will have to do a lot more of it. The paper suggests that the regulator will be funded by a levy on the companies—they will need it. The Minister assured us that regulations will be reasonable and proportionate. Yes, there will be a code of conduct. I think that the internet companies will welcome this, because it firmly puts the responsibility on government to decide what is and is not acceptable, and where lines should be drawn. The lines may be drawn in different places in different countries, but I agree that we have to make a start.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, and hope that the Government will make an important part of this code of conduct requiring internet platforms to provide information voluntarily to help the authorities find the authors of harmful material. Their identity is often covered by many layers of encryption or by using off-grid servers. Indeed, I presume these regulations will apply only to the open internet. Do the Government also hope to regulate the dark web and private servers?

Of course, there are other ways to achieve the same objective. Like the noble Lord, Lord Kirkhope, I ask the Minister whether we will keep the GDPR rules of the EU. These seem to rely on swingeing fines acting, we hope, as a deterrent, but the size and resources of the European Union are presumably needed to collect such fines from companies 5,000 miles away; however, I am sure they act as a deterrent.

The alternative is to deal with this through some good, old-fashioned anti-monopoly legislation, making sure that customers and users are not being exploited. As we are all locked into using these platforms, are we being exploited by lack of choice, lack of transparency or lack of content? I put it to the Minister that there is a case for this. He will be aware of the growing unease about the concentration of power and control over the internet in a few companies; we all know who they are. Much of this power and control lies in the fact that the same company that provides the platform also provides the content and the goods. Doing both enables a company to dominate trading online, causing harm to many small and medium-sized companies that trade on or off the internet. This is harmful to society too, as explained by my noble friend Lord Griffiths and the noble Lord, Lord McNally, because it causes economic harm.

So, there is a case for commercial harm. Internet platforms recognise this and have recently produced data ethics guides or appointed prestigious advisory councils to look at not only harm but the impact of artificial intelligence. Part of their task also seems to be helping to argue that breaking up the dominant companies will be bad for innovation and progress. I suspect that reducing the harm of these companies by treating them as monopolies is some way off but, in the end, it may become the only effective way of dealing with the harm that concerns us, making the internet a safer place without having to create trusted institutions to handle the data. The promised media literacy strategy can play an important role. Like my noble friend Lord Puttnam, I think it should be high on the agenda to assist us in helping ourselves and our families.

The Government are right to act. As I said, it will require a lot of people and money, but let us not forget old-fashioned monopoly legislation because it may come down to that. The Minister spoke about international co-operation. What steps will the Government take to get others to work with us? I agree that we cannot isolate ourselves from the rest of the online world.