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

I was considering it, we are considering it, and we will consider it further. The worry we have is about speed, and setting up a completely new regulator, and co-ordinating the existing regulators, is what we have to worry about. The consultation is still going on, and that is something we can address.

The other main issue that several noble Lords have mentioned is about the 10 principles in the report, and the six principles in the charter, which I mentioned before. We have a set of principles that underpin the digital charter, and the online harms White Paper is part of the charter’s programme of work. The committee’s principles of regulation correspond with the White Paper approach. For example, on parity, what is unacceptable offline should be unacceptable online. However, the online harms White Paper does set out our intention to consult widely as we develop our proposals, so we will further consider the proposals as part of this, ahead of finalising new legislation.

The noble Lords, Lord McNally and Lord Stevenson, also mentioned pre-legislative scrutiny. We would like to consult thoroughly—we have had a Green Paper and a White Paper, both of which have had consultations that, we hope, will ensure that we get our proposals right. However, as I said before, there is a need for urgent action—that is increasingly evident—and we will take those factors into account when reaching a decision on whether to engage in pre-legislative scrutiny. We are not against it in principle—in fact, there are many ways in which it would be useful—but, having had two consultations already, we may decide in the long run that speed is more important and that we need to get things done.

As to the momentum to which the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, referred, a Bill is definitely planned. It needs to be drafted after the consultation—which ends on 1 July—but it will not be easy legislation to frame if we are to capture all the areas that noble Lords have talked about. We have momentum and are keen to do it, as is the Home Office, which wishes to address particular issues such as child exploitation.

The noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, the right reverend Prelate and the noble Baronesses, Lady Harding and Lady Kidron, talked about age-appropriate design. The right reverend Prelate was concerned that we would row back from this. Age-appropriate design, or the kids’ charter—or, as I call it, the Kidron charter—is a part of the wider approach to tackling online harms and will play a key role in delivering robust protections for children online. We discussed it at length on the Bill. The ICO has been consulted formally on the code and will continue to engage with industry. We are aware that the industry has raised concerns—the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, mentioned some of them—but it is not beyond the wit of such an innovative industry to deal with those technical concerns. It is important that the ICO continues to work with the industry to make sure that the measures are workable and deliver the robust protection that children deserve. The ICO has a reputation as a proportionate regulator and we will stand behind it.

The noble Lord, Lord Gilbert, asked about a classification framework akin to that of the British Board of Film Classification. We have said in the online harms White Paper that companies will be required to take robust action, particularly where there is evidence that children are accessing inappropriate content, and that we expect the codes of practice issued by the regulators to make it clear that companies must ensure that their terms of service state what behaviour and what activity is tolerated on the service, as well as the measures that are in place to prevent children accessing inappropriate content. The regulator will assess how effectively these terms are enforced. The classification framework is an interesting idea. We are consulting on developing our proposals and we will certainly include that.

The noble Lord, Lord Gilbert, also asked for important assurances that the press are outside the scope of the duty of care and how the Government intended to balance journalistic freedom with the regulation of online harms. The Secretary of State has been clear that this is not intended to include journalistic content. We do not interfere with what the press does or does not publish as long as it abides by the law of the land. A free press is an essential part of our democracy, so journalistic or editorial content will not be affected by the regulatory framework we are putting in place.

The noble Viscount, Lord Colville, and the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, mentioned gaming addiction. I have written to the noble Viscount, who reminded me that a whole six weeks had passed and he wondered what we had done about it. I do not think he has been in government or he would know that that is asking a bit much, especially as the consultation is still going on and does not finish until 1 July. We do not want to duplicate what is regulated by other gambling and gaming regulators. We are clearly looking at that important issue, but it is not within the scope of this White Paper.

The noble Viscount mentioned the GDPR loophole. I will have to look at that. I always thought that data subjects had the ability to ask for decisions made by algorithms to be explained, whether or not it was with a person. I will have to check the legal position and get back to him on that.

As far as the e-commerce directive and liability is concerned, the new regulatory framework will increase the responsibility of online services, but a focus on liability for the presence of illegal content does not incentivise the systematic, proactive responses we are looking to achieve. We think the way we are doing it—with the duty of care—gives them the responsibility to be more proactive, and that the monitoring they have to do is within the scope of the e-commerce directive.

I once again thank the noble Lord and his committee for their report. I think we are aligned on some of the fundamental issues. The contributions this evening have shown that there is a depth of interest in this subject. If we get this right, we have an opportunity to lead the way and work with others globally. We will protect citizens, increase public trust in new technologies and create the best possible basis on which the digital economy and society can thrive.