Regulating in a Digital World (Communications Committee Report) - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:01 pm on 12th June 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Harding of Winscombe Baroness Harding of Winscombe Conservative 8:01 pm, 12th June 2019

My Lords, I will begin by commending and congratulating the Communications Committee and its chairman, my noble friend Lord Gilbert, for an excellent and very far-sighted report. I should declare my own interest: I was a trustee of Doteveryone until recently, and the chief executive of TalkTalk less recently.

I have personally campaigned for balanced internet safety regulation for a long time. I passionately believe in the good that the digital world is bringing to society. I also believe in free markets and competition driving that good. However, it is clear that we also need to have a civilised digital world and that it needs regulation to protect the vulnerable and to ensure a level, competitive playing field in order to continue driving innovation.

That position has felt quite a lonely place for quite a long time, with many of my fellow tech leaders arguing strongly that liberal markets will solve these problems; that the internet should be a completely open, unregulated space; or that no regulation is possible, because technology is moving too fast. On the other hand, campaigners have argued for blanket bans and blocks. I am therefore delighted to see—in this report, in the Government’s response in the online harms White Paper and in views expressed on both sides of the House, in this Chamber and in the other place—that there is a growing consensus that self-regulation of the digital world is not enough and not working, and that we need regulation that is thoughtfully designed across a whole range of potential social and economic harms.

I am particularly pleased to see agreement on legislating to create a statutory duty of care. That puts into practice the first principle that the committee’s report sets out: that we need to look for parity between the offline and online world wherever possible. A statutory duty of care that, in a sensible and balanced way, puts the onus on organisations to look after their customers and stakeholders seems to me a fantastic way forward, and we have plenty of offline precedent to guide us in our online regulation.

I would also like to congratulate the committee on its work in setting out a principles-based approach to regulation; its 10 principles are excellent. Why are some of those 10 principles not replicated in the Government’s thinking in their response? It seemed to me that they are a balanced and comprehensible set of guidelines for us to shape regulation for the future.

I would like to move to an important issue raised by my noble friend Lord Gilbert, on which I am less convinced that there is consensus: whether we should be addressing digital regulation piecemeal in each different part of society as it arises, or in a co-ordinated and more strategic way. In business, almost every large historic, physical, non-digital business has worked out that you need to bring digital leadership into one place for at least a period of time—you need to bring together all the teams looking at driving change on your digital agenda if you are really going to get momentum. It does not need to be done for ever. I have tried it both ways in my business career—keeping it separate or pulling it together—and, if you really want to create a step change in a physical organisation that is learning about the digital world, you need to have an overarching digital strategy and a team of people who specialise in looking at all the interconnectivity of these different digital issues.

It seems to me that the recommendation in this report to create the digital authority does exactly that in our physical society as we learn to integrate it with digital. The skills are too limited to keep them spread and the issues are too overlapping. It requires a different way of thinking from the old physical world. In all my experience in business, if you organise that together, you will get an acceleration of thinking and learning that can then be embedded in all the different parts of the system.

I think the committee is really on to something here. I am concerned that the Government do not appear to agree and instead prefer a more fragmented approach, creating additional regulators—which, as a good liberal Conservative, I do not like anyway—in what looks like an attempt to glue together this approach in a digital charter. To me, it looks more like a digital work plan than a charter, when compared with a statutory digital authority.

I am concerned for a number of reasons. First, I am worried that the digital charter is too close to politics. These are complex and technical issues that require a lot of detailed thought from experts who really understand the subject. Regardless of who is in charge in whichever Government we have, I am nervous about the digital charter being glued into the DCMS in a purely informal way. I also think it is too easily captured by powerful lobbyists. The tech industry is not separating out its approach to lobbying on digital regulation. Do not think for a moment that there are disparate teams working on online safety and online competition: there is one unified thought process coming through the tech industry. If we are going to get to the right, balanced answer, we should be doing the same.

It is dangerous to have your core digital strategy interwoven with an economic Ministry in DCMS. We are asking our DCMS Ministers and civil servants to be poacher and gamekeeper: to attract inward investment, but at the same time to create a fair, level playing field and safety net for the vulnerable.

Those are all reasons why, in principle, we should accept the recommendation of this report and establish a digital authority. I think we can see in practice why we should as well. Like the right reverend Prelate, I am concerned that the kids’ code—the age-appropriate design code—will get watered down through hugely effective lobbying from people who will tell you that it is impossible or that it should be very narrow. I am sure that the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, will give us more detail on this when she speaks, so I will try not to steal her thunder. It is a great example of why, if we are not very careful, it is impossible to balance poacher and gamekeeper.

In conclusion, I would like to congratulate the Communications Committee and its chair on this excellent report, and to ask the Minister to reconsider the Government’s response and bring forward legislation to set up a digital authority and to implement the 10 principles set out in this report. I suspect that all of us in the Chamber this evening agree that this presents a real opportunity for us to do what we did in this country 150 years ago: to manage that balance between being open to innovation and protecting everyone in society as technological innovation gathers pace. This is a hugely exciting report and I am delighted to be part of the debate this evening.