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Queen’s Speech - Debate (6th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:53 pm on 22nd October 2019.

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Photo of Lord Griffiths of Burry Port Lord Griffiths of Burry Port Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Wales) 6:53 pm, 22nd October 2019

My Lords, when I hear the noble Baroness speak like that, I want her contribution to end with the word “Discuss”, that we might form ourselves into a seminar and take the subject further. But I must be disciplined and stick to the subject I have chosen rather than engage with the fruitful ideas we heard a moment ago. It is to do with the whole question of DCMS, the online harms process and pre-legislative scrutiny—we are promised a Bill eventually—and all the issues that we have already begun to discuss here but that are coming forward again in greater detail later.

The metaphor of the cliff edge has been in wide use in recent times. They are down the other end at the moment raising the possibility, or probability, of a cliff edge in the Brexit debate. In a speech over the weekend, a former Governor of the Bank of England said we may be “sleepwalking” towards another cliff edge of a financial nature. The cliff edge to which I will refer is the one that I believe exists in the whole world of developing technology and the use of the internet; we have discussed this at length in various debates. The exponential rate of the expanding reach of social media, the internet and information technology vastly outpaces the capacity of a legislative chamber to promulgate a piece of legislation that deals with something that is already yesterday’s story before we put our thoughts together and make it enactable.

Because, I have to admit, I start from a rather low base, I began this year by reading Martin Moore’s Democracy Hacked: Political Turmoil and Information Warfare in the Digital Age. It was a frightening read—very well researched, empirically based and threatening the very foundations of our democracy. The remarks I have heard about Russia’s readiness to interfere in the American election in 2020 just confirm the feelings I got from reading that book.

I am current reading—the seminar idea is coming to the fore again—Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, which it defines as,

“a new economic order that claims human experience as free raw material for … extraction, prediction, and sales”.

I am about 250 pages in and almost having nightmares from what I read.

I am certain we have to do something, and the online harms process is the first instrument available to us. The noble Baronesses, Lady Howe and Lady Benjamin, and the noble Lords, Lord Clement-Jones and Lord McNally, have spoken passionately and eloquently about the age-verification aspect of what is now to be incorporated in the online harms Bill rather than to flow out of the earlier Act. That is certainly one aspect of it but from the conversations I have had, it seems to me that there are very serious matters for us to consider when we do this work together.

I would love the Government to assure me that the gracious Speech was more than just an election manifesto for a forthcoming electoral exercise by telling me what the timetable will be for producing the material that would lead to these debates. We had a consultation period that finished in July. When will all that material be processed and available to us so that we can put our minds to it, as well as the Government looking at it? What about this pre-legislative scrutiny? When? What is the critical path? As I say, we do not have time on our side. Developments in these fields of endeavour are threatening the very foundations of our society. We must have a sense of urgency about this. I have read enough to know that. I look forward to the contribution later from the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, who will say it with much more astute and learned phrases than me.

My contribution to a debate of this kind necessarily has to be broad-brush. Can we sense an urgency in how we address the questions that flow from the very successes of the internet, which carry with them baggage of an altogether more threatening kind? It is quite incumbent upon us to show an ability to do precisely that.