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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:21 pm on 12th June 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 9:21 pm, 12th June 2019

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Gilbert for introducing the debate and to the entire Communications Committee for its report. I think that it is clear and well thought through. I also thank all other noble Lords who were not on the committee but who have given us their views. This is an interesting area and the thought that has gone into the report is a tribute to noble Lords. However, plenty more needs to be done. As the report notes, the digital world plays an ever-increasing role in all aspects of life. The noble Lord, Lord Maxton, referred to that. As well as benefits and opportunities, this development has brought with it new challenges and risks. The noble Lord, Lord McNally, quoted Tim Berners-Lee in that respect. I think that the committee’s report is closely aligned with, although absolutely not identical to, the Government’s approach. I will explain some of the areas that we are considering and some where we do disagree.

The recently updated digital charter, which was also described as a digital work plan—it is that as well—is our response to the opportunities and challenges arising from new technologies. The committee’s report sets out 10 principles to shape and frame the regulation of the internet which resonate with the six principles that we set out in the charter. I will come back to those principles later. At this point I have to say that I do not agree with some of what the noble Lord, Lord Maxton, said. I believe that it is possible to regulate as long as it is sensible and proportionate. Indeed, Sir Nick Clegg has asked for reasonable regulation, as has been reported today in the newspapers. My Secretary of State has been to discuss this with Facebook and other tech companies in California. Where I do agree with the noble Lord and with my noble friend Lord Inglewood is that co-operation with international bodies is eminently desirable and will be useful. I personally have spoken about this at the G7, the D9, the OECD and the EU Council, and that was just me, let alone the Secretary of State and the Minister for Digital and the Creative Industries. We want to work with our like-minded international partners to determine how we can make the internet a safer place while protecting the fundamental rights and values on which our democracy is based. I can say that other countries are interested in our work in this area. I agree in a way with the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, that we should not say too often that the work is world-leading; we ought to let other people tell us that.

The principles of the digital charter underpin an ambitious programme of work to ensure that the internet and digital technologies are safe and secure, are developed and used responsibly—with users’ interests at their heart—and deliver the best outcomes for consumers through well-functioning markets.

I will now set out in more detail some of the key areas of work that correspond to the committee’s recommendations. My department and the Home Office recently published the online harms White Paper—which virtually every noble Lord mentioned—setting out our plans to make the UK the safest place in the world to be online. I believe that the suggestions in that White Paper satisfy the committee’s 10 principles.

Illegal and unacceptable content and activity are widespread online, and UK users are concerned about what they see and experience on the internet. The balance that needs to be struck—this conundrum, if you like—was outlined by my noble friend Lady Harding. We agree with the committee that a duty of care is an effective response to tackle this problem. We intend to establish in law a new duty of care on companies towards their users, overseen by an independent regulator, on which we are consulting. As a result of that, as the right reverend Prelate said, tech companies will have to have responsibility. It will leave them in no doubt that internet companies have a responsibility in scope. We believe that this can lead towards a new, global approach to online safety that supports our values, as I said, but also promotes a free, open and secure internet. Speaking of democratic values, I also look forward to the ideas of the House of Lords special inquiry committee on democracy and digital technologies—chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam —which the noble Lord, Lord McNally, mentioned. I can confirm that, as always, DCMS will give it its utmost co-operation.

As the report identifies, organisations increasingly collect and use individuals’ personal data online. The noble Lord, Lord Vaux, gave us helpful detail on that. New technologies must be deployed ethically, as well as safely and securely. The Government take both the protection of personal data and the right to privacy extremely seriously. The GDPR and the Data Protection Act provide increased regulatory powers for the Information Commissioner’s Office, which strengthen our data protection laws to make them fit for the digital age.

However, the increased use of personal data with artificial intelligence is giving rise to complex, fast-moving and far-reaching ethical and economic issues that cannot be addressed by data protection legislation alone. In answer to the questions from the noble Lord, Lord Vaux, relating to Google in particular, I will look at those details again. It is fair to say that people can contact the Information Commissioner’s Office if they are worried about the use of their personal data by tech companies that may or may not be in compliance with the GDPR.

The Government have also set up the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation to provide independent, impartial and expert advice on the ethical and innovative deployment of data, algorithms and artificial intelligence. In answer to the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, this has not yet been set up on a statutory basis—as I think he well knows—but it will be. It is a question of legislative time, but it is our intention and plan to do that. In the meantime, as he knows, the Chancellor has made money available for it to act. It will work closely with regulators, including the ICO, to ensure that the law, regulation and guidance keep pace with developments in data-driven and AI-based technologies. The issue of the forward-looking aspects of the digital authority will partly be addressed by the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation, but I will come back to the digital authority in a minute.

As set out in the online harms White Paper, creating a safe user environment online requires online services and products to be designed and built with user safety as a priority. We will work with industry and civil society to develop a safety by design framework.

The noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, and other noble Lords talked about market concentration, and the report recommends how the Government should approach mergers and acquisitions in this unique online environment. The Government’s Modernising Consumer Markets Green Paper sought views on how well equipped the UK’s competition regime is to manage emerging challenges, including the growth of fast-moving digital markets. We continue to consider the options across the range of measures proposed in the Green Paper, including for digital markets, and are due to report in summer 2019. This will be informed by the work of the independent Digital Competition Expert Panel, led by Professor Jason Furman, which published its recommendations for Government on 13 March. The Prime Minister announced yesterday that Jason Furman has agreed to advise on the next steps on how we can implement his recommendation to create a digital market unit. We are considering his other recommendations, and will respond later this year.

On the digital authority, which was one of the key recommendations of the report, to, among other things, co-ordinate regulators in the digital world, we support the committee’s view that effective regulation of digital technology requires a co-ordinated and coherent approach across the various sector regulators and bodies tasked with overseeing digital businesses. They need clarity and stability, and the Government should lead the way in providing oversight and co-ordination of digital regulation, and ensuring consistency and coherence. We are carefully considering how existing and new regulatory functions, such as that proposed through the online harms White Paper, will fit together to create an effective and coherent landscape that protects citizens and consumers. However, we are also conscious of the calls for speed, which have been made by many noble Lords and stakeholders, not all tonight. On the one hand, we have to carefully consider the implications of new regulation, as the noble Lord, Lord Gordon, told us; on the other hand, there are serious harms that need addressing now.

When I say we are carefully considering it, we are carefully considering it. The noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, is looking as if he is not taking me seriously, but we are.