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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:36 pm on 12th June 2019.

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Photo of Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords) 8:36 pm, 12th June 2019

My Lords, the hour is late and everything that needs to be said has been said, but not yet by me. However, your Lordships will be happy to know that that is the way it is going to stay because I really just want to emphasise one issue, which has been widely addressed by other contributors to the debate. I thank our chair, the noble Lord, Lord Gilbert, who led this committee with tremendous grace. I will not say that it was made up of cats or that it was especially difficult to herd its members, but it had its challenges, as the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, said. We also had fantastic support from the clerks and our adviser, as has also been said.

I also thank the Government for responding so promptly to the report, which allowed this debate to happen while its findings were still current. This has not been the case on every occasion, and in this particular realm there is a need for issues to be addressed quickly because otherwise they are not the issues today that one thought they were yesterday.

Digital technology is not my area of expertise, so I have learned a very great deal more from witnesses and colleagues than I have been able to contribute. I have discovered, however, that there is some value in being a relative innocent in the digital realm. The value to me was that I have had to work jolly hard to understand what was being put in front of me. I do not think that I have always understood all of it, but I have certainly understood something. The main thing that I have understood is blindingly obvious: the digital world, referred to in the title of the report, is not a parallel universe that we can step into or out of at will. It is the world. It affects and infects every aspect of our lives, whether we like it or not. I will simply give the House a few obvious examples. It affects our politics and our democracy; it affects the way we buy and sell things; it affects the way we access public services and medicine, and it infects and affects our domestic and private lives.

I do not know how many noble Lords are watching the BBC TV series “Years and Years”, written by Russell T Davies. It is an absolutely brilliant piece of dystopian imagination. Threaded all the way through it is the dependency on digital technology, which every single person who is part of the world it is describing—which is only a few years on from today—has to recognise. The wonderful thing about it, apart from the brilliant writing and performances, is that some of what can be seen in it is clearly not exactly what we have today but so close as to be recognisable. I mention it because it tells us that it does not take very much—of course, Mr Davies’s imagination is a good deal more far-reaching than all of ours—to realise just how close we are to that kind of really deep-rooted dependency.

I was part of a conversation earlier today, as part of my work on the committee, with a group of 17 and 18 year-olds—year 12, in other words—who came to talk to us about their viewing habits and how they accessed television. Of course, what they described was a way of working with the technology that they have available to them. This is certainly quite different from the way that I work with what I have available to me because they are completely familiar with it. They understand the way that it works and the opportunities that it offers to them. These young people were using this technology very creatively; they were very clever and savvy and healthily sceptical about what was put in front of them. However, they need and deserve effective regulation and, furthermore, they know that they do. The contributions from the right reverend Prelate and the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, made these points very effectively, more effectively than I can.

Given this reality and given the world, it must surely be the case that effective regulation would not just be nice to have: it is absolutely essential. It is fairly clear that self-regulation, which has been depended on up till now, is inadequate; and that the nature of regulation itself has to be rethought, which was the point made at the very outset of this debate by the noble Lord, Lord Gilbert. It has to be rethought with far greater emphasis on working collaboratively across boundaries and sectors. This is the rationale— which was so expertly analysed by the noble Baroness, Lady Harding, in her contribution—behind the committee’s recommendation that a new digital authority be set up.

Like others, I welcome the recent online harms White Paper and I am glad that the Government are broadly sympathetic in their response to the committee’s analysis and recommendations. However, I note that their response to this key recommendation is what might be called a bit lukewarm. This recommendation on the digital authority suggests that a single, overarching co-ordinating body, linked to a Joint Committee of Parliament, is potentially the most effective way of ensuring regulatory coherence in the fast-moving world of technological development.

To be fair, the Government’s response accepts the need for,

“a coordinated and coherent approach across the various sector regulators and bodies tasked with overseeing digital businesses”,

but it then sets out a rather less than coherent way forward:

“As part of this programme of work, we look to the tech sector, businesses and civil society, as well as the regulators themselves, to own these challenges with us, using our convening power to bring them together to find solutions where possible”—

I emphasise “where possible”. Later it says:

“The government is carefully considering potential overlaps between new regulatory functions, such as that proposed through the Online Harms White Paper, and the remits of existing regulators. Consolidation of these functions, or a broader restructuring of the regulatory landscape, could”— again, I emphasise “could”—

“play an important role in supporting an effective overall approach to the regulation of digital, as well as minimising burdens on businesses … We thank the Committee for their recommendation and will carefully consider this and their other recommendations as we continue to assess the need for further intervention”.

In one way there is nothing wrong with that, but I do not detect any great sense of urgency. Speaking just for myself, I think these matters are urgent. Actually, I think the committee thinks so too, and the report says that. I fear that we are in danger of being completely outrun by the speed of change. I realise that the Government are in a difficult place at the moment, and I do not say that disrespectfully, but while they are pausing to sort themselves out our digital world is moving on apace, and it will not wait for us. I hope the Minister can assure us that the necessary momentum will gather before it is too late.