My Lords, like other speakers, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Gilbert, and his committee on this useful report. I say at the outset that I am a director and trustee of Full Fact. It has been a great pleasure to discuss Communications Committee matters with many Members of your Lordships’ House, as I had the great privilege of doing that years ago when I was fortunate enough to chair the committee; those were some of the happiest times of my life in this House.
To make this report manageable, it was really sensible to set on one side many of the technical aspects of the internet—not least because I for my part cannot understand them—and a number of the aspects and implications of the phenomenon of large-scale data transfer in the context of areas such as the internet of things. Rather, we have a report that seems to concentrate on the relationship of the internet with individual human beings essentially in a personal capacity.
In this context, the internet is a complicated and potentially complicating intermediary between two separate things—a source of information and its consumer—which in turn may well involve commercial transactions and/or marketing of products or services in a way which, until recently, was unthinkable. I say as an aside that this may be one of the most abstract House of Lords reports I have read. This is not a criticism; it is a symptom of the difficulty of the problem we are looking at, which, in its domestic form, is merely part of a wider global problem which is embedded here in the United Kingdom—this is picking up on a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Maxton. We are talking about a fast-moving and ever-changing technology, and the techniques used to apply it, set in a global system.
I think this is the right starting point, because the report rightly comments that a “principles-based approach” is probably the only way to put in place a remotely relevant framework in such a fast-changing environment. From this starting analysis, it is important that the relationship between government—not only our Government—and those who effectively have the greatest influence and control over the net, the FAANGs of the moment, amounts to a reasonably amicable modus vivendi, each understanding the role of the other. The latter, who can organise much of their activity beyond the reach of any traditional Government, must retain consumer and public confidence, while Governments must try to ensure the benefits of this new technology are maximised for their citizens’ benefit.
It follows that Governments in the western world, many outside it—excluding certain authoritarian regimes—and the big tech companies, taking a longer view, have a mutuality of interest in working together. As Tim Berners-Lee, who was quoted at the beginning of the report, has said, the internet is potentially a great force for good. One should add to that proposition that it is one that is not going to go away. On the one hand, Governments need to enlist internet players to assist in dealing with human, financial, political and reputational harm, as well as bettering the human condition more generally. At the same time, internet businesses, by being involved in that, can expect a regime in which they will get a reasonable return—on which appropriate tax should be paid.
An important point contained in the report is that there should be as seamless a join as possible between online and offline rules of behaviour and conduct, although clearly there are some attributes unique to the internet, such as algorithms, which may require their own rules. Rules must be not only enforceable; where appropriate, they must be enforced.
As I have mentioned, while some of the problems which arise are essentially domestic, many are not. Sometimes those which are not are less obvious; for example, some of the corruption we have seen in domestic UK elections of late. Natural boundaries and traditional jurisdictions are in many cases irrelevant. Our country, like every other, must accept that.
A shortcoming of the report, which may be deliberate—for reasons I have touched on already—is the almost complete silence about the cross-border, cross-jurisdictional aspect of the internet’s workings. The noble Lord, Lord Maxton, pointed this out, and allusion is made to it in the text. As the report points out, leaving the EU presents some real difficulties in this regard. They can, and no doubt will, be negotiated and dealt with in another way in a post-Brexit world, but the problem has always gone much further than the European Union. Collectively, Governments of the world must somehow evolve a universal and consistent framework for the modus operandi of the internet, as viewed from the perspective of consumers and enforcers, although exactly how that might be done is beyond my pay grade at the moment.
I think there are two parallel problems. First, jurisdictional difficulties need to be set aside to try to achieve some kind of workable international transactional homogeneity. As part of this, those who influence the way in which the internet works need to be brought into the rule-making process. This is not the traditional approach to lawmaking within the nation state, but there is a need for a system which brings about an agreed and accepted outcome into which there is general buy-in, subject in the last analysis to effective enforcement. If there is not, it will not work. Secondly, however that may be brought into being, the arrangements must be living, or they will rapidly become outdated, as has already been said.
Currently, in the midst of the Brexit crisis—if I may describe it that way—much of the focus of the debate has been on the legislative structure of the European single market. The system that emerges may make that look positively simple. If so, so be it, because unless we grasp this particular nettle, the likely outcome is an anarchic muddle.
At the start of my remarks, I commented on the somewhat abstract character of the report, only to then make a generalised and somewhat abstract speech myself. However, it seems to me that if a requirement of a regulated, working internet is to achieve its full potential in the wider public interest, it must be brought into being as a result of some quite radical actions, and radical thinking is required to do that. This is not simply a domestic issue which relates to domestic activities. It goes much further than that. International problems require international solutions.