Online Harms White Paper - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:50 pm on 30th April 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Grender Baroness Grender Liberal Democrat 7:50 pm, 30th April 2019

My Lords, it is excellent to follow the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, because I have worked with him on areas of addiction. I know of his campaigning in this area, and I admire and follow with interest his constant insistence on connecting it to health. I also thank the Minister for providing us with this debate. As the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths, rightly described it, it has been a good opportunity to have a fascinating conversation.

Every noble Lord has said that the White Paper is very welcome. To date, the internet, and social media in particular, have opened up huge freedoms for individuals. But this has come with too high a societal price tag, particularly for children and the vulnerable, as described by the noble Baroness, Lady Hollins. There is too much illegal content and activity on social media, including abuse, hate crimes and fraud, which has mostly gone unpoliced. As my noble friends Lord McNally, Lady Benjamin and Lord Storey said, we on these Benches therefore support the placing of a statutory duty of care on social media companies, with independent regulation to enforce its delivery. My noble friend Lady Benjamin was quite right to say that she was seated at this table a long time before many of us. The independent regulator could be something like the Office for Internet Safety, or, as described by the Communications Committee, the digital authority.

The evidence has been clear from the DCMS Select Committee, the Lords Select Committee on Communications, Doteveryone, 5Rights and the Carnegie Trust: they have all identified the regulatory gap that currently exists. A statutory duty of care would protect the safety of the user and, at the same time, respect the right to free speech, allowing for a flexible but secure environment for users. We agree that the new arrangements should apply to any sites that, in the words of the White Paper,

“allow users to share or discover user-generated content or interact with each other online”.

The flow between regulated or self-regulated providers of information and providers of platforms of unfiltered content is not something that your average teenage user of “Insta”, as they call Instagram, can distinguish—by the way, it is never Twitter they use; that is for “old people”. These Insta-teens do not distinguish between a regulated, substantiated information provider and inaccurate and harmful content or links. The noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, talked about digital literacy, which is absolutely essential. One of the greatest gifts we can give a new generation of children is the ability to question the content that is coming to them. Proper enforcement of existing laws, as mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, is vital to protect users from harm. But the useful addition is that social media companies should have a statutory duty.

My noble friend Lord Clement-Jones so ably chaired the Select Committee report on artificial intelligence, Ready, Willing and Able?; a report that some of us talked about only last week. A year later, it is still keeping us all very busy with speaking engagements, and therefore my noble friend is very sorry that he cannot be here. He is currently in Dubai at the AI Everything conference to talk about AI and ethics. When the White Paper was published, he rightly said:

“It is good that the Government recognise the dangers that exist online and the inadequacy of current protections. However, regulation and enforcement must be based on clear evidence of well-defined harm, and must respect the rights to privacy and free expression of those who use social media legally and responsibly”.—[Official Report, 8/4/19; col. 431.]

He welcomed the Government’s stated commitment to these two aspects. The essential balance required was described by my noble friend Lord McNally, the noble Lord, Lord Kirkhope, and the noble Viscount, Lord Colville.

Parliament and Government have an essential role to play in defining that duty clearly. We cannot any longer leave it to the big tech firms such as Facebook and Twitter, as we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Haskel. We have been waiting and waiting for it to be done on a voluntary basis, and it is simply not good enough. It was therefore good to hear the Statement earlier today, on yesterday’s emergency summit, about self-harm and the commitment from some of the big tech firms to provide the Samaritans with support. However, the right reverend Prelate, my noble friend Lord Storey and the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, were right about the need to follow the money and look at the level of investment versus the level of profit. I hope that the Minister will respond on that.

I want to explore in particular the use of regulators that currently exist. Our findings on these Benches, following a series of meetings with the main regulators and after hearing evidence, is that they are keen to get started on some of these areas. While I appreciate that we are still in a period of consultation, I would like to explore this issue, because the need to deliver soon for the whole current generation is significant.

Does the Minister agree that it may well be possible for the extension of regulatory powers to Ofcom to oversee the newly created duty of care? Does he agree that Ofcom could, in principle, be given the powers and appropriate resources to become the regulator that oversees a code for harmful social media content, and the platforms which curate that content, to prevent online harms under the duty? As the noble Viscount, Lord Colville, asked, what are the possibilities for the use of current regulators? Ofcom’s paper on this very issue, published last September, was very helpful in this respect. We heard from my noble friend Lord McNally about the success of the Communications Act 2003, and the scepticism beforehand about its ability to deliver. It runs in complete parallel to what is currently being debated about how it can apply to the internet—so it has been done before.

Likewise, how does the Minister view new powers for the Information Commissioner and the Electoral Commission, particularly in respect of the use of algorithms, explainability, transparency and micro-targeting? I apologise that I cannot provide more detail—I cannot seem to get on the internet here today, which is ironic—but there was a recent fascinating TED talk about the suppression of voting. It was about not just the impact on voting but trying to suppress voter turnout, which I find horrific. What are the possibilities for the ICO and the Electoral Commission to expand and take up some of these duties?

The White Paper refers to the need for global co-operation, and my noble friend Lord Clement-Jones is pursuing the possibility of the G20 in Osaka being used as a key platform for an ethical approach to Al. Is it possible that the White Paper agenda could be included in this? In particular, it is about using the recommendations on ethical principles from the AI Select Committee, and the five principles for socially good AI from the European Commission High-Level Expert Group. What are the possibilities around that, given that we are trying to push for global agreement on responsible use of the internet?

The noble Lord, Lord Knight, mentioned transparency. There must be transparency around the reasons for decisions and any enforcement action, whether by social media companies or regulators. Users must have the ability to challenge a platform’s decision to ban them or remove their content. I very much welcome the fact that technology has been highlighted as something that is part of the solution.

For children, “not online” is simply not an option. Children at secondary school now have to use it to do their homework. It is no good me saying to my 13 year-old, “Get off your screen”, because he just might be on “Bitesize” or doing his maths. I have to get my kids’ meals paid for on this, so online is very much part of a child’s life. Screen-based activity could mean that they are doing their homework—fingers crossed.

However, I completely agree with what was said about the resistance of the gaming sector, in particular, to engage with this issue, and I support the noble Viscount, Lord Colville, on this. But my noble friend Lord McNally rightly pointed out our limitations generationally. Fair warning: I think that sitting through a popular vlogger on YouTube with 2 million subscribers describing the “Endgame” version of Fortnite to us would not enlighten us as legislators. It is therefore about us getting it right.

The noble Lord, Lord Anderson, said that we have been lucky. What I fear and worry about most of all is that today’s generation is not going to get the value of this White Paper, and that is particularly unlucky. Therefore, to get the balance right, as my noble friend Lord McNally rightly said, we should be considered in our approach. But I worry about the need to deliver quickly, and that is why I am asking whether there are regulators who can possibly trial some of this legislation in advance, rather than it going through pre-legislative scrutiny—because we know that some of them are ready to deliver on some of this.

I assume that when seat belts were originally discussed in a place like this, there were still some people who wanted children to bob about on the back seat in the name of freedom, without laws to protect them. Today that would be horrific and unheard of. We will probably look back and feel the same about children online. My noble friend Lord Storey is absolutely right: a child can find their way around the age issue. Give me a handful of 11 and 12 year-olds and I will show you the social media apps they are currently on. All of them are restricted to 13—but they are all on them. That is why the age verification issue must be tied in with younger people in particular, as was mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, and my noble friend Lady Benjamin. In order to double or triple check, I ask the Minister whether it is being delivered in July. I thank him for his thumbs up; it is very well taken.

As I have said, we have a moral duty to move at quite a pace now. The White Paper is extremely welcome and I look forward to supporting its rapid progress through this House.