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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:54 pm on 12th June 2019.

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Photo of Lord McNally Lord McNally Liberal Democrat 8:54 pm, 12th June 2019

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Vaux, need not apologise. This is one of the few assemblies in the world where one would get as deep and thorough an analysis of the subject from one of its Members. I still remember the American Senate talking to Mark Zuckerberg and the chasm of understanding between the legislators and the techie was cruel to behold. So stay with us.

I want to refer to a comment by the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood. He talked about his chairmanship of the Communications Committee. I have never served on that committee or been its chairman, but for nine years I was leader of the Liberal Democrats here in the Lords and in that capacity I was on all the committees that looked at the structures of committees, et cetera. I can say that during that time there were one or two very severe attempts to get rid of the Communications Committee, usually by offering even more interesting things to members. It was something I seriously resisted, because I believe that its ambit covers such an important future agenda that it is important that it continue as a permanent committee of this House. Its importance is underlined by the report before us tonight and I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Gilbert, both on the way he introduced it and on the way he herded the cats on the committee, as we were told. He had my noble friends Lady Benjamin and Lady Bonham-Carter as members, so I know exactly what he was talking about.

The committee has already had its impact: the Government have acknowledged that their online harms White Paper was influenced by some of the committee’s recommendations. Some 16 years ago I served on the Puttnam committee, the pre-legislative scrutiny committee for what became the Communications Act 2004. That Act created Ofcom, which has developed into a feared and respected regulator with public interest responsibilities. That committee took the conscious decision 16 years ago not to look into the idea of regulating the internet. The world wide web was seen as a free good and a boon to mankind. Ten years later, in addition to that libertarian approach, was the argument that the internet titans, the likes of Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google, were now so global and powerful as to be beyond the reach of any national jurisdiction—what I would describe as the Maxton approach.

Now the public mood has changed. As the noble Lord, Lord Gordon, said, that sense of wonder and awe has worn thin. In the United States, in Europe and here in the United Kingdom there is now a feeling that we have got to come to grips with the power of the internet. The chair of this committee, the noble Lord, Lord Gilbert, when launching this report said:

“A comprehensive new approach to regulation is needed to address the diverse range of challenges that the internet presents”.

Tonight, he called for urgent and compelling action. Tim Berners-Lee, the father of the world wide web, has said:

“While the web has created opportunity, given marginalised groups a voice, and made our daily lives easier, it has also created opportunity for scammers, given a voice to those who spread hatred, and made all kinds of crime easier to commit”.

The noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, quoted Mark Zuckerberg and other tech leaders as saying that they would now welcome some regulation, but I give a warning: do not underestimate the power of the lobbyists. The so-called FANGs have immense resources. I saw in the New York Times this week that even the Senate was backing off from too urgent action against them. In some ways, the story of the National Rifle Association should always be kept in mind if you are really challenging vested interests in a big way and, boy, that is what we are proposing to do.

The great debate is now about how and when we regulate. Both the committee report and the Government’s White Paper, along with many contributions to today’s debate, listed the harms and abuses that the internet has spawned—although I acknowledge along with the noble Lord, Lord Maxton, the many benefits that the internet has spawned as well. A few weeks ago the Health Minister was answering questions about the mental health damage to young people on the internet. She made the point in response, which I thought was very valid, “Yes, but also on the internet is found some of the help and advice that young people were often searching for, which they would not be able to find as easily elsewhere”.

We are talking about a balance, but the grooming and abuse of vulnerable groups, particularly children, is nevertheless one of the key things, and I pay tribute to the campaign that the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, has led on this. As far as the kids’ code is concerned, all I can say is that we will be with her every step of the way, so she should keep going. There is of course use by terrorists, organised crime and, indeed, state agencies. There are also the undermining of democratic processes and the promotion of hate language towards race, sexual orientation and mental or physical handicap. The noble Viscount, Lord Colville, mentioned other health and social consequences, particularly with gaming addiction. The examples go on and on, and such a charge list creates a public and political demand that something must be done. The White Paper captures this sense of urgency when it says that things,

“have not gone far or fast enough”.

Our task is made easier by the committee’s recommendation of 10 principles to guide the development of regulation online. On the other hand, the recommendation that a new digital authority be created sets alarm bells ringing at the idea of yet another regulator in this sphere. We need to think carefully about what is needed. Such an authority will need a certain heft and clout to gain the respect of some pretty big beasts.

I remember that when the Puttnam committee was discussing the establishment of Ofcom we were told that Murdoch’s lawyers would eat this new regulator for breakfast. Well, it was not so. Now, 15 years on, we have reached a stage where “give it to Ofcom” seems to be the answer to every problem. That may be the answer, but let us weigh up the options. Whatever becomes this digital regulator will have to work closely with the ICO, the CMA and other bodies such as the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation, as well as self-regulators such as the ASA and trade bodies such as the Internet Association. But Parliament will then have to decide where the buck stops and who makes the key decisions.

There will also need to be early work on data literacy. Here I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Maxton, that the long-delayed recommendation of the Puttnam committee for a clear policy of data literacy education is important, parallel with these developments. In addition, the CMA and the DCMS are going to need extra resources to take on their new responsibilities. I hope that I am not treading on too many toes in Whitehall if I say that there will be greater public confidence as we move forward if the DCMS is seen as the lead department, although of course the Home Office has a clear role in criminal, terrorism and intelligence matters.

I disagree with the statement that the DCMS cannot be the poacher and gamekeeper. The digital authority will have to have a parent department, but Parliament will need to be able to look at some detailed and specific proposals if we are to avoid a plethora of codes and regulators and a balkanisation of the system, a warning made by the noble Baroness, Lady Harding. I thought at one point that she was going to suggest that the whole lot be given to the Home Office, but she steered away from that nightmare. That is why it is not nostalgic for me to urge that, before we move to specific legislation, a draft Bill is submitted to a joint pre-legislative scrutiny committee of both Houses. The great benefit of the Puttnam committee process was its transparency and its open door to allow all interest groups to have their day in court. The outcome was a piece of legislation which was better and more robust because of that pre-legislative scrutiny. I am very interested to see that growing into a permanent Joint Committee of both Houses.

The noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, mentioned democracy. One of the criticisms of the White Paper and the report is that they did not deal with the threat to our democracy posed by internet abuse. I am delighted to see on today’s Order Paper that a Committee of this House has been established to report on democracy and digital technologies. I was even more delighted when I saw that the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, had been appointed chairman. I hope the Minister will assure us of his department’s full co-operation with the work of that committee.

My final appeal is that we remain major players in international discussions on these matters. Between 2010 and 2013, I was the Minister involved in the early stages of GDPR negotiations. The GDPR may have its weaknesses, but it is an example of how international agreements can be reached on these matters. In the ICO and its commissioner, we have a real asset to be deployed in seeking international co-operation. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood: I see no reason why we should not have the ambition to create a kind of Geneva convention on rules of behaviour for the world wide web.

Nor for the first time, the Communications Committee has produced a report which brings credit to this House and positive and useful advice to the Government, while providing clear advice for the next steps for all of us in this complex and fast-moving world. In that respect, we are all in its debt.