Online Safety Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:08 pm on 1 February 2023.

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Photo of Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws Labour 8:08, 1 February 2023

My Lords, I do not think anyone in this House would disagree with the idea that freedom of expression is a very precious freedom. We have only to look around the world to see that authoritarian Governments almost invariably go after free speech as one of the first things that they do. We know that media freedom is a vital part of any democracy, as indeed is the rule of law, but as the noble Lord, Lord Black and the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, said, law has been pretty absent in this whole arena, even where it could have been used. I am glad that we are now addressing the complicated issue of regulating the internet and these platforms.

I do not want to see journalists’ privacy invaded so that their sources are exposed. I do not want any possible chilling effect on investigative journalism exposing corruption and abuse of power. It is vital to our democracy. However, we have to think very seriously about the kind of regulation that we have been discussing in this House, because it has been part of our tradition. Unlike the United States, we have not fetishised freedom of expression. We have seen that there have to be occasions when we restrict freedom of speech to protect people from serious harm. That is what this discussion today is really about and will be in the course of the Bill.

I declare that I am a trustee of 5Rights, which is the foundation created by the redoubtable noble Baroness, Lady Kidron. As a lawyer who is pretty well versed in the need for law, I have learned so much from her, and I believe that the major priority of this Bill has to be the protection of children. There are still gaps, and when the noble Baroness comes to put her amendments through, I will be there speaking in support of them. I hope that all noble Lords will come onboard, because those gaps definitely still exist.

I want to speak to your Lordships about women, because last year I chaired an inquiry in Scotland into misogyny. It was a very powerful experience to hear from women and women’s organisations about the extent to which women are abused on the internet. It was absolutely overwhelming that these were not only women in councils or parliaments, or women who were journalists or campaigners, but in schools and universities, women were being traduced and abused. Threats to rape, sodomise or sexually assault women, and to facially disfigure them with acid, would take place online and then you would find people piling in. The pile-on is something this House should know about. It is where, because of algorithms and because of people having followers, huge numbers of people then jump on the bandwagon and add their bit of insult and abuse to what has gone before. Or you get “likes”. I once saw a television documentary saying that the man who invented the thumbs-up “like” regrets it to this day because, of course, he now has children and knows how painful that can be. Also, that business of liking is telling women that there are hundreds and thousands of people out there who think that these things should be done to them.

I really regret to say that, of course, it is not policed. There are not prosecutions, or only very rarely, because of the cover of anonymity, which is problematic. We are going to have to discuss this during the course of this Bill because it gives a veil over those who do it. As well as the pile-on, one of the difficulties is—and I say this as a lawyer—the thresholds you have to pass for criminal prosecution. People have learned that you do not say, “I’m going to come and rape you”; they say, “Somebody should rape you. You deserve to be raped.” The message to women, therefore, is not, “I’m coming to get you”, but “Somebody out there just might”. It has an incredible effect on women.

We have to have that in mind when we come to Committee. We have to recognise the urgency, in relation to children particularly, but we also have to be alert to the ways in which women and girls are finding their lives made wretched. They are made fearful because of threats. Prosecutions and criminal prosecutions should be brought more regularly, because if there is anything that will stop this, it will be that. We have to be very vigilant about media freedom—I agree entirely—but we also have to make sure that we keep the Secretary of State out of this. I do not want to see politicians having their fingerprints on it, but the idea of a Joint Committee to monitor the way in which regulation takes place and to watch developments, because technological developments happen so quickly, is a good one.

We have to address algorithms. We heard from the Russell family that, even after Molly Russell had died, there on her technology she was receiving—it was being pushed at her—stuff about suicide, and the child was no longer alive. This is not about soliciting information; this is it being pushed in the direction of people. I urge this House, with all its usual great expertise, to make this Bill the best we can make it, certainly just now; but the priority first and foremost must be children.