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Queen’s Speech - Debate (6th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:22 pm on 22nd October 2019.

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Photo of Lord Clement-Jones Lord Clement-Jones Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Digital) 6:22 pm, 22nd October 2019

My Lords, yesterday my noble friend Lady Bonham-Carter covered a range of aspects of arts and creative industry policy, so I will focus on digital policy during today’s debate—but I hope my noble friend will have the benefit of a reply to her questions from the Minister at the end.

Digital technology and communication are now prevalent throughout our society and economy and are having a profound impact on all our lives, but it is clear that major differences with this Government of timing and priority for action are now emerging for many aspects of digital policy. This is the case above all on age verification. The Secretary of State has announced a huge delay in a policy which we debated in this House at length. I strongly agree with my noble friends and the noble Baroness, Lady Howe: this is a truly shocking and unfortunate decision. All the adult sites were preparing to install these robust mechanisms. What is the Government’s real aim? Is it to let these adult sites off the hook? Have they somehow decided that age verification is not workable? If that is not the case, when should we expect the introduction of this crucial policy? How will this impact on the anticipated age-appropriate design code when age verification is used as the default protection mechanism? How will the Government respond to the obligations of the revised Audiovisual Media Services Directive, which will enter into force in September 2020? The Government need to urgently reconsider this matter.

As regards online harms, it is widely agreed that tech companies should no longer be able to avoid responsibility for content on their sites. We agree that a statutory duty of care, properly framed, can protect the safety of the user and, at the same time, respect the right to free speech, allowing for a flexible but secure environment for users. The task of regulation in this area should fall to Ofcom. With its clout, experience of drawing up codes in sensitive areas affecting freedom of expression, understanding of how technology and content converge and experience of co-operating with other regulators, it is the most sensible choice. Given the complexity of the issues, and the need for clear definitions, we welcome the prospect of pre-legislative scrutiny of a draft Bill setting out the new regulatory provisions. Indeed, on these Benches, we suggested it. How do the Government intend that this is carried out? When can we expect the draft Bill, and will it designate Ofcom as the regulator so that it can start preparations?

Competition regulation for the digital industries needs to be substantially strengthened so that the importance of data as an asset is recognised and we prevent data monopolies that form barriers to innovation. We need to build on the recommendations in the Furman review, which recommended a new digital markets unit to ensure that we are abreast of these issues. When is the Government’s response to that report going to emerge? With which regulator will the new unit sit? Have the Government made a decision?

Online gaming and e-sports are becoming immensely popular hobbies for individuals of all ages, especially for our younger generation. They provide a positive outlet for creativity and a level of global communication the likes of which have not been possible for the generations before them. But we must also consider the negative consequences of new forms of online gambling for young people, such as loot boxing. What are Government doing in response to the loot box phenomenon? How are they responding to the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee’s recent recommendation for a ban on these for children? Will they carry out a review of their impact?

In recent days, live facial recognition technology has been described as potentially Orwellian by the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, and deeply concerning by the Information Commissioner. The Home Office’s own Biometrics and Forensics Ethics Group has questioned the accuracy of live facial recognition technology and noted its potential for biased outputs and biased decision-making. The Science and Technology Select Committee recommended an immediate moratorium on its use,

“until concerns over the technology’s effectiveness and potential bias have been fully resolved”.

In this light, will the Government support my Private Member’s Bill, shortly to be introduced, enforcing a moratorium on this technology—pending a review—to assess the right form of regulation?

Even more prevalent than this technology is the use of algorithms in decision-making by public bodies. One in three councils is now using computer algorithms to make decisions about benefit claims, despite evidence emerging that some systems are unreliable. Are we not endangering public trust in artificial intelligence in a major way? When will this Government regulate this kind of decision-making by algorithm?

Fear and lack of trust in technology are very strongly related to the future of jobs and skills. AI in particular will have significant implications for the way in which society lives and works. The future.now initiative, recently launched by the Lord Mayor, Peter Estlin, recognises that there are some 17.3 million people in the UK without the necessary skills for work—but, despite this, the Government’s national retraining scheme is only at pilot stage. What can the Minister tell us about the rollout of the national retraining scheme?

In terms of the skills we should be nurturing, as a number of noble Lords have said, it is very clear that these should be not just tech skills, such as maths and coding, but social and creative skills. Are the Government taking on board the recommendations of the Durham commission, which so cogently set out the case for creative skills?

Above all, the black cloud of Brexit looms over the thriving tech and digital sector. What can the Government tell us about their preparations to seek data adequacy, which is so important for the tech and digital industries?