Online Harms White Paper - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:19 pm on 30th April 2019.

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Photo of Lord Ashton of Hyde Lord Ashton of Hyde The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport 8:19 pm, 30th April 2019

My Lords, I genuinely thank all noble Lords for their contributions. I echo what the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, said about the quality of the speeches. There is much to say and I will do the best I can to be clear.

I again make the point that this is not a Second Reading debate. I am not here to defend every word in the document. We are approaching this issue in a genuinely consultative way, as I think we have done from the publication of the Green Paper onwards. However, there is one thing that we are not prepared to compromise on: we do not think that the status quo is acceptable, and we believe that the public support us in that.

We are interested in people’s views and the consultation is taking place at the moment. As I said, there have already been over 1,000 responses. There tends to be an initial barrage of responses. They then tail off a bit, and the more considered ones, with the benefit of research, come at the end. Therefore, we think that there will be a significant amount of consultation. We intend to undertake research during and after that period, based on the consultation, and I, along with my officials, will be very willing to talk to noble Lords about this issue outside the Chamber.

Regarding the potential chilling effect on SMEs of the proposed legislation, I would like to say something about the DCMS. Its responsibilities have grown enormously. We now represent sectors that produce one in every £7-worth of the goods and services produced in this country. We are absolutely concerned with and supportive of innovation and growth. Although we think that this regulation is necessary, we are very concerned that it should be proportionate and risk based so that it does not in any way stop the engine of growth that has taken place over the last few years, particularly in the digital sector, where the growth has been significantly higher than that of the economy. We are undoubtedly a world leader in that respect.

The DCMS also represents culture and the media, so we are concerned with our liberal democratic culture, freedom of expression and the press. We therefore have to achieve a difficult balance. It is interesting that both ends of the continuum have been expressed tonight—that is, noble Lords have alluded to the fact that this is a broad-ranging document but some have said that it does not cover a number of pet harms that they are interested in. Achieving the aims will be difficult but absolutely possible. I will come on to talk about how the harms relate to the duty of care, which I hope will be reassuring. I reiterate that, in replying to the individual points made by noble Lords, I guarantee to take them back to the department and think about them, and I will write to noble Lords if I do not get to the end.

Although this is an important part of the battle against internet and online harms, it is also part of a wider mission that we are undertaking. We want to develop rules and norms for the internet, including for protecting personal data, supporting competition in digital markets and promoting responsible digital design. That is why, on page 31 of the White Paper, we have specifically indicated the areas that we are excluding: areas that are either regulated elsewhere or addressed by other parts of the Government’s activities. This may or may not end up with DCMS, as the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, predicted. That these online harms are addressed is more important than where they end up residing.

I return to the list of harms on page 31 of the White Paper. The noble Lord, Lord Griffiths, contrasted it with the harms outlined in the Plum report. That was commissioned by my department as part of the evidence that will support the online advertising review announced by the Secretary of State earlier this year, as well as the Government’s response to the Cairncross review. These lists were therefore produced for slightly different purposes.

Generally speaking, we know that the list of harms in the White Paper will not incorporate every harm that every person is interested in, or that exist on the internet. We want in the duty of care to tell internet and tech companies that they can no longer say, “This is not my problem”. They will have to look at the harms and will have an active duty to educate themselves about the potential harms that their website or app, for example, produces. Even if these are not delineated, it will not be an excuse for a company to say that they are not on the list. We could have had a list of harms that we thought encompassed everything, but that would have been guaranteed to be out of date in three nanoseconds. The duty of care is there to futureproof this legislation as much as possible.

As I said, we have not included harms that have already been dealt with by other initiatives. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, for example, that we are not covering the dark web; that is dealt with under a separate programme by the Home Office. Where I do agree with him is that competition law itself will need to be looked at, just as big companies in the past have been addressed by it. We will not do it in this White Paper but, as he will know, the Furman report on digital competition outlined that there is insufficient competition in the digital economy. We will be responding to that soon. The noble Lord also asked about international co-operation and what steps we are taking. During the period between the consultation and our response to it, we will be looking at a concerted effort—a programme, as it were—on international co-operation. We agree that it is important, so we will not do it on a piecemeal basis but will try for a proper strategy. That is one piece of work that must be done.

The noble Lord, Lord Colville, talked about the need for a focused definition so as not to inhibit free speech. We are absolutely focused on that; we believe in it. The regulator will issue codes of practice setting out clearly what companies need to do. If the evidence changes and new harms are manifest, the regulator can react and issue guidance but we will have to make sure the legislation itself is very clear about free speech. We are giving the regulator a duty to have regard to privacy and people’s rights under, for example, the GDPR. That will be absolutely within the regulator’s remit.

The noble Lord, Lord Brooke, talked about health. We will take on board his suggested title for the new legislation. We are worried about health too, so my department has worked very closely with the Department of Health and Social Care. As noble Lords know, the ex-Secretary of State for DCMS is now running that department and speaks frequently on these matters—in fact, he did so today. We have cited the Chief Medical Officer’s advice on screen time and included advocacy of self-harm among the list of harms. We take these issues on board. One of the features we have incorporated in the White Paper is safety by design. [Interruption.] I apologise—the digital part of my portfolio is intruding on me. Safety by design means that all harms, including those related to health, are included, if it is reasonable to take account of them.

The noble Lord, Lord McNally, and the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, wondered if we have the flexibility and nimbleness to stay ahead of technology and regulate effectively. We will establish a regulator that will have the skills and resources needed to issue guidance on a range of harms. I take on board everything that noble Lords have said about resources and I will come to that later. We will consider the case for pre-legislative scrutiny, but I must say that at the moment—this is not a commitment or an indication of official policy—we are also very conscious of the need to act quickly. We have consulted on the Green Paper and we are consulting on the White Paper. We are thinking about pre-legislative scrutiny—I know the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, is an expert on that—but we have not made a decision on it. Whatever happens, there will be plenty of consultation with noble Lords.

We agree with the other point made by the noble Lord, Lord McNally, about coherence across Whitehall. There is a need for coherence on regulatory functions and between departments. We are consulting on who the regulator should be and I take on board noble Lords’ views on that. The departmental lead is DCMS, but it is a joint White Paper, so the Home Office is taking a keen interest in this. As I said before, at the moment there is no prospect of us changing that and I think we are well placed in terms of both knowledge and enthusiasm to drive this forward. I have been told that the Secretary of State has made a good impression so far with his advocacy of this White Paper.

The noble Lord, Lord Anderson, spoke of the need for government to declare boundaries for companies to adhere to, and said that there is currently a democratic deficit, with large, foreign companies often setting the rules. My noble friend Lord Kirkhope also mentioned this. In the White Paper, we are consulting on the role of Parliament in relation to the regulator and, in particular, to the codes of practice it will issue. As I said, we will not provide a rigid definition of all the harms in scope, but we will ask how far Parliament should be involved in the individual codes of practice and to what extent the regulator should be accountable to Parliament—in the way that Ofcom is, for example. We are very supportive of that.

On the regulator, I know that some noble Lords have suggested Ofcom. Obviously, we are consulting on whether we want a new regulator from scratch, an existing regulator or a combination of the two. Obviously, I agree that Ofcom would be a strong candidate if an existing body is chosen, and the White Paper recognises that.

The noble Baroness, Lady Grender, mentioned AI. We mention it vis-à-vis transparency. The regulator will have the power to ask what the impact is, as the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, said. I take his point about the further need to look at AI and some of the issues surrounding it. We would be interested to wait; it will certainly come in time. It is one of the first areas that the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation is looking at, so we would be interested to hear what it says about it.

My noble friend—sorry, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans, who is of course a friend because for some reason we seem to see quite a lot of each other on various issues—talked about gambling, as did the noble Viscount, Lord Colville, and particularly about addiction. The right reverend Prelate mentioned that the regulator needs significant powers and independence to deal with some of the largest companies in the world. He asked if it could be envisaged that some companies could have their licences revoked. That is exactly one of the questions we have asked in the consultation, along with other significant powers of blocking sites and business interruption. So within our suggestions we are talking about pretty draconian powers, but they will be proportionate.

For example, the right reverend Prelate mentioned that the maximum fine at the moment has been £500,000. That is because that was the limit that the regulator—the ICO in this particular case—had. If we follow the GDPR’s lead, it would be 4% of global turnover. Facebook had a turnover of $55 billion, so the fine could potentially go up from £500,000 to $2.2 billion. More important than that is the other suggestion we made about possible personal liability for senior executives and some of the other things I mentioned. We are absolutely conscious that enforcement is a crucial issue in setting up an effective regulator, particularly when so many of these companies are largely based abroad. Another thing we could consider is personal representation in this country, as mentioned in the GDPR.

As far as gambling itself is concerned, we have also tried to avoid duplication, so we are talking about not gambling specifically but of course, as I mentioned before, harms generally. Internet addiction will definitely be in the White Paper’s scope.

My noble friend Lord Kirkhope talked about self-regulation, which he disagreed with. We agree that self-regulation has not worked. It is a good start, and we would expect the regulator to work closely with companies and organisations such as the Internet Watch Foundation in producing its codes of practice. The regulator will wish to learn from these organisations. As I said right at the beginning, we think self-regulation has not worked sufficiently. That is why we have decided to establish an independent regulator.

The noble Lords, Lord Puttnam and Lord Knight, both talked about the democratic issue and electoral interference. We talk about disinformation in the White Paper. That is clearly in scope. Specifically electoral matters will be left to the Cabinet Office, which will soon publish a report on what it is going to do. Indeed, I believe that my noble friend Lord Young is answering a Question for the Cabinet Office tomorrow about that exact issue. I mention that merely to give noble Lords the chance to ask him.

Briefly, because I have not got much time, I will talk about a very important point which many noble Peers have mentioned, and that is the media literacy strategy. We understand that regulation is one thing, but making people aware of what is needed in the modern world is very important. We have committed to developing a media literacy strategy, including major digital players, broadcast and news media organisations, education sector researchers and civil society, to ensure a co-ordinated and strategic approach to online media literacy, education and awareness for children, young people and adults. We want to enable users to be more resilient in dealing with misinformation and disinformation—including in relation to democratic processes—ensure people with disabilities are not excluded from digital literacy education and support, and develop media literacy approaches to tackling violence against women and girls.

I am running out of time, but I want to be very clear about disabilities to the noble Baroness, Lady Hollins. We will be considering those. I will take back what she has said in detail, absolutely take it on board and definitely consult.

Finally, I was very pleased at and grateful for the support of my noble friend Lady Howe of Idlicote. As her speech went on, I was waiting for the “but”, and it sort of came. We agree that filters can be very useful for parents. The online media literacy strategy will ensure a co-ordinated and strategic approach. It will be developed in broad consultation with all stakeholders. As far as the online age verification is concerned—which I can confirm will come in on 15 July—I know that there are issues, which she has discussed both in the Digital Economy Bill and also individually with me. We have decided that a review will take place, so we are not going to be including this, but I absolutely take on board the points she has made and will ensure that they are taken back.

There are a number of other points. I will write to noble Lords, as there are too many to mention. There are those—the noble Lord, Lord Storey, mentioned some of them—who say that because the internet is global, no nation can regulate it. If we have a strong regulator with a sensibly defined legislation that follows the money, as the noble Lord said, then I do not agree; I think it can be regulated. We will do our best to ensure international support with that. We are well placed to be the first to act on this, and to develop a system of regulation that the world will want to emulate. The White Paper begins that process and delivers that, and I commend it to the House.

Motion agreed.