Online Harms White Paper - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:33 pm on 30th April 2019.

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Photo of Viscount Colville of Culross Viscount Colville of Culross Crossbench 7:33 pm, 30th April 2019

I declare an interest as a series producer at Raw TV making content for CNN. I support many of the suggestions in the White Paper, particularly the need to give a duty of care to tech companies to prevent the harms that appear on their platforms. The Communications Committee’s recent report on regulating the internet stated:

“Given the urgency of the need to address online harms, we believe that in the first instance the remit of Ofcom should be expanded to include responsibility for enforcing the duty of care. Ofcom has experience of surveying digital literacy and … experience in assessing inappropriate content”,

and balancing it against free speech. The new regulator recommended in the White Paper is an exciting idea I fully support, but it will take some time to create and action needs to be taken now.

I was reassured by the Minister’s assurances on free speech at the beginning of the debate but I would still like to draw his attention to the wide range of organisations covered by the regulator under the White Paper. Paragraph 4.2 looks at types of online activity, including “hosting”, “sharing” and “discovery of user-generated content”. My concern is that this definition is so widely drawn that it will cover much user-generated content on the websites of broadcasters and newspapers. As the Minister pointed out, these are already regulated by Ofcom, IMPRESS or IPSO. Some of the UGC is also regulated on these publishers’ websites, particularly those that have gone through a process of editorial control. However, a lot of the other comments and UGC on these websites is not covered and is not being looked at under the regime suggested by the White Paper. I suggest that it should be dealt with by extending the remit of the existing regulators, rather than being duplicated by a new regulator.

I am also concerned by some of the definitions of online harms set out in table one in paragraph 2.2—the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths, talked about them—particularly those under the column entitled “harms with a less clear definition”. I am worried that unless their definition is carefully focused, they will have a chilling effect on free speech by leaving media companies vulnerable to allegations of breaching their duty of care. One such harm is “disinformation”, which we are all against when it covers the dissemination of lies. I fear that, despite the Government’s laudable intention, a wide definition would allow interest groups and individuals being investigated by reporters to disrupt research and undermine the credibility of news organisations with allegations of fake news. For example, we have seen super-complaints against media outlets reporting on the pharmaceutical industry and exposing the side-effects or addictive qualities of certain drugs. The threat of a digital regulator questioning the original journalism and comments from users, who report the side-effects of these drugs, could stop these investigations taking place.

Another term that worries me is “violent content”, which also comes under the column entitled “less clear definition”. This definition must also be drawn very carefully so that it does not censor reports on demonstrations or terrorism. Even if these reports have been carefully edited, there could still be complaints of incitement to or encouragement of violence. For instance, reporting from the Catalan independence referendum showed many shots of the police violently tackling voters to prevent the banned vote going ahead. In this case, a wide definition of “violent content” could be interpreted to cover these images of extreme police action because they incite violence; they might therefore be taken down. I ask the Minister to draw these definitions carefully so as not to chill free speech. It would be ironic if the legislation coming from this White Paper managed to quash valid and important free speech when it should be stopping a much greater harm.

A completely different area of the White Paper, mentioned by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans, worries me: the Government’s approach to internet addiction. Paragraph 1.19 of the White Paper states:

“The UK Chief Medical Officers (UK CMOs) commissioned … a systematic evidence review on the impact of social media use on children and young people’s mental health. The review covered … online gaming … and problematic internet use, which is also known as ‘internet addiction’”.

However, paragraph 1.20 states:

“Overall the research did not present evidence of a causal relationship between screen-based activities and mental health problems, but it did find some associations between screen-based activities and … increased risk of anxiety or depression”.

The White Paper concludes that the evidence does not support the need for,

“detailed guidelines for parents or requirements on companies”.

Box 15 suggests that,

“the regulator will continue to support research in this area … and, if necessary, set clear expectations for companies to prevent harm to their users”.

I suggest that the White Paper is kicking the can down the road. Millions of parents in this country will have stories of trying to limit their children’s screen time and the dreadful battles that ensue. Your Lordships only have to read a widely praised book by Shoshana Zuboff, Surveillance Capitalism, to understand that addictiveness is built into many platforms, especially social media sites such as Facebook.

Chapter 8 does look at regulators working with tech companies to enforce safe design in the digital world, but I suggest that the Government should specifically ask the regulators to look at internet addiction more thoroughly and, if necessary, force tech companies to change their algorithms and coding so that this addictiveness is reduced. Obviously, tech companies want to encourage users to spend as much time on their platforms as possible, so it is only through direct intervention by the regulator that anything will be done to combat internet addiction.

There is one area of internet addiction that I am particularly concerned about: internet gaming disorder, a condition which at the moment affects many young people, especially young men. There is great concern among addiction specialists about this problem. It has been difficult comprehensively to diagnose the condition because so many different measures have been used, but next month the World Health Organization assembly will be discussing whether gaming disorder should be included in the International Classification of Diseases. Once that happens, doctors and psychologists are convinced that the terrible extent of this problem will become only too clear.

The Minister has only to talk to players of the game “Fortnite” to understand how very clever the company designers have been in making it addictive. Even when the player stops the game it carries on, and when they join there are endless incentives to keep playing. There have been many cases of young people being severely sleep deprived, refusing to leave their rooms and, in some cases, even becoming suicidal. Policymakers in China and South Korea, where this has been a particular problem, recognise that internet game disorder needs to be dealt with. They have started to combat it by working with parents and by engaging with the gaming companies to build in design that limits the amount of time played and, in some cases, cuts off play after a certain period. The White Paper needs to bring together stakeholders and the gaming industry to draw up new regulations right now to mitigate the problem of gaming addiction, along the lines of what is going on in the Far East. I ask the Minister to ensure that any further legislation takes this problem into account. Millions of parents across the country will be grateful and, in the long term, so will their children.