Amendment 52A

Online Safety Bill - Committee (6th Day) – in the House of Lords at 5:00 pm on 11 May 2023.

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Lord Knight of Weymouth:

Moved by Lord Knight of Weymouth

52A: After Clause 15, insert the following new Clause—“Duty to inform users about accuracy of content on a service(1) This section sets out a duty to make available information to allow users to establish the reliability and accuracy of content which applies in relation to Category 1 services.(2) A duty, where a service provides access to both journalistic and other forms of content, to make available to users such information that may be necessary to allow users to establish the reliability and accuracy of content encountered on the service.”Member’s explanatory statementThis amendment is to probe what steps, if any, a carrier of journalistic content is expected to take to improve users’ media literacy skills.

Photo of Lord Knight of Weymouth Lord Knight of Weymouth Labour

I move this amendment in my name as part of a group of amendments on media literacy. I am grateful to Full Fact, among others, for some assistance around these issues, and to Lord Puttnam. He has retired from this House, of course, but it was my pleasure to serve on the committee that he chaired on democracy and digital technology. He remains in touch and is watching from his glorious retirement in the Republic of Ireland—and he is pressing that we should address issues around media literacy in particular.

The Committee has been discussing the triple shield. We are all aware of the magic of threes—the holy trinity. Three is certainly a magic number, but we also heard about the three-legged stool. There is more stability in four, and I put it to your Lordships that, having thought about “illegal” as the first leg, “terms of service” as the second and “user empowerment tools” as the third, we should now have, as a fourth leg underpinning a better and safer environment for the online world, “better media literacy”, so that users have confidence and competence online as a result.

To use the user empowerment tools effectively, we need to be able to understand the business models of the platforms, and how we are paying for their services with our data and our attention; how platforms use our data; our data rights as individuals; and the threat of scams, catfishing, phishing and fraud, which we will discuss shortly. Then there is the national cyber threat. I was really struck, when we were on that committee that Lord Puttnam chaired, by hearing how nations such as Finland and the Baltic states regard media literacy as a national mission to protect them particularly from the threat of cyberwarfare from Russia.

We have heard about misinformation and disinformation. There are issues of emerging technologies that we all need to be more literate about. I remember, some six or seven years ago, my wife was in a supermarket queue with her then four year-old daughter who turned to her and asked what an algorithm was. Could any of us then confidently be able to reply and give a good answer? I know that some would be happy to do so, but we equally need to be able to answer what machine learning is, what large-language models are, or what neural networks are in order to understand the emerging world of artificial intelligence.

Ofcom already has a duty under the Communications Act 2002. Incidentally, Lord Puttnam chaired the Joint Committee on that Act. It is worth asking ourselves: how is it going for Ofcom in the exercise of that duty? We can recall, I am sure, the comments last Tuesday in this Committee of the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, who said:

“I took the Communications Act 2003 through for Her Majesty’s Opposition, and we were doing our absolute best to future-proof the legislation. There was no mention of the internet in that piece of legislation”.—[Official Report, 9/5/23; col. 1709.]

There is no doubt in my mind that, as a result of all the changes that have taken place in the last 20 years, the duty in that Act needs updating, and that is what we are seeking to do.

It is also possible to look at the outcomes. What is the state of media literacy in the nation at the moment? I was lucky enough this weekend to share a platform at a conference with a young woman, Monica. She lives in Greenwich, goes to Alleyn’s School, is articulate and is studying computer science at A-level. When asked about the content of the computer science curriculum, which is often prayed in aid in terms of the digital and media literacy of our young people, she reminded the audience that she still has to learn about floppy disks because the curriculum struggles to keep up to date. She is not learning about artificial intelligence in school because of that very problem. The only way in which she could do so, and she did, was through an extended project qualification last year.

We then see Ofcom’s own reporting on levels of media literacy in adults. Among 16 to 24 year-olds, which would cover Monica, for example, according to the most recent report out earlier this year or at the end of last, only two-thirds are confident and able to recognise scam ads, compared to 76% of the population in England. Young people are less confident in recognising search-engine advertising than the majority: only 42% of young people are confident around differentiating between organic and advertising content on search. Of course, young people are better at thinking about the truthfulness of “factual” information online. For adults generally, the report showed that only 45% of us are confident and able to recognise search-engine advertising, and a quarter of us struggle to identify scam emails and factful truthfulness online. You are less media literate and therefore more vulnerable if you are from the poorer parts of the population. If you are older, you are still yet more vulnerable to scam emails, although above average on questioning online truth and spotting ads in search engines. Finally, in 2022, Ofcom also found that 61% of social media users who say they are confident in judging whether online content is true or false actually lack the skills to be able to do so. A lot of us are kidding ourselves in terms of how safe we are and how much we know about the online world.

So, much more is to be done. Hence, Amendment 52A probes what the duty on platforms should be to improve media literacy and thereby establish the reliability and accuracy of journalistic content. Amendment 91 in my name requires social media and search services to put in place measures to improve media literacy and thereby explain things like the business model that currently is too often skated over by the media literacy content provided by platforms to schools and others. The noble Lord, Lord Holmes, has Amendment 91A, which is similar in intent, and I look forward to hearing his comments on that.

Amendment 98 in my name would require a code of practice from Ofcom in support of these duties and Amendment 186 would ensure that Ofcom has sufficient funds for its media literacy duties. Amendment 188 would update the Communications Act to reflect the online world that we are addressing in this Bill. I look forward to the comments from the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, in respect of her Amendment 236, which, she may argue, does a more comprehensive job than my amendment.

Finally, my Amendment 189 in this group states that Ofsted would have to collaborate with Ofcom in pursuance of its duties, so that Ofcom could have further influence into the quality of provision in schools. Even this afternoon, I was exchanging messages with an educator in Cornwall called Giles Hill, who said to me that it is truly dreadful for schools having to mop up problems caused by this unregulated mess.

This may not be the perfect package in respect of media literacy and the need to get this right and prop up the three-legged stool, but there is no doubt from Second Reading and other comments through the Bill’s passage that this is an area where the Bill needs to be amended to raise the priority and the impact of media literacy among both service providers and the regulator. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Holmes of Richmond Lord Holmes of Richmond Conservative

My Lords, it is a pleasure to take part in today’s proceedings. As it is my first contribution on this Bill, I declare my technology and financial services interests, as set out in the register. I also apologise for not being able to take part in the Second Reading deliberations.

It is a particular pleasure to follow my friend, the noble Lord, Lord Knight; I congratulate him on all the work that he has done in this area. Like other Members, I also say how delighted I was to be part of Lord Puttnam’s Democracy and Digital Technologies Committee. It is great to know that he is watching—hopefully on wide-movie screen from Skibbereen—because the contribution that he has made to this area over decades is beyond parallel. To that end, I ask my noble friend the Minister whether he has had a chance to remind himself of the recommendations in our 2020 report. Although it is coming up to three years old, so much of what is in that report is completely pertinent today, as it was on the date of publication.

I am in the happy position to support all the amendments in this group; they all have similar intent. I have been following the debate up to this point and have been in the Chamber for a number of previous sessions. Critically important issues have been raised in every group of amendments but, in so many ways, this group is perhaps particularly critical, because this is one of the groups that enables individuals, particularly young people, to have the tools that they—and we—need in their hands to enable them to grip this stuff, in all its positive and, indeed, all its less-positive elements.

My Amendment 91A covers much of the same ground as Amendment 91 from the noble Lord, Lord Knight. It is critical that, when we talk about media literacy, we go into some detail around the subsets of data literacy, data privacy, digital literacy and, as I will come on to in a moment, financial literacy. We need to ensure that every person has an understanding of how this online world works, how it is currently constructed and how there is no inevitability about that whatever. People need to understand how the algorithms are set up. As was mentioned on a previous group, it is not necessarily that much of a problem if somebody is spouting bile in the corner; it is not ideal, but it is not necessarily a huge problem. The problem in this world is the programmability, the focus, the targeting and the weaponising of algorithms to amplify such content for monetary return. Nothing is inevitable; it is all utterly determined by the models currently in play.

It is critical for young people, and all people, to understand how data is used and deployed. In that media literacy, perhaps the greatest understanding of all is that it is not “the data” but “our data”. It is for us, through media literacy, to determine how our data is deployed, for what purpose, to what intent and in what circumstances, rather than, all too often, it being sold on, and so on.

Does the Minister agree that it is critical that we include financial literacy in this broader media literacy group of amendments, because so much of what is currently online is designed as financial scams or inducements? It would not be overstating it to say that there is currently an epidemic of online scamming and fraud. Does he agree that the Bill needs to be very clear on this specific issue of literacy? Will he update the Committee on the work the Government have done on the Media Literacy Taskforce Fund and, indeed, the programme fund launched last October? What updates or plans are there to scale, to develop and to further partner on both those funds?

Finally, I quote the words of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, stating pretty clearly, in terms, why media literacy matters:

“media literacy … can equip young people with the tools they need to help protect themselves as new online harms develop”.

I agree but, matching like with like, I seek to amplify. More than tools, we need media literacy to be nothing short of the sword and the shield for young people in the online world—the sword and the shield for all people.

Photo of Baroness Fox of Buckley Baroness Fox of Buckley Non-affiliated 5:15, 11 May 2023

My Lords, for once, I am not entirely hostile to all these amendments—hurrah. In fact, I would rather have media literacy and education than regulation; that seems to me the solution to so much of what we have been discussing. But guess what? I have a few anxieties and I shall just raise them so that those who have put forward the arguments can come back to me.

We usually associate media literacy with schools and young people in education. Noble Lords will be delighted to know that I once taught media literacy: that might explain where we are now. It was not a particularly enlightening course for anybody, but it was part of the communications A-level at the time. I am worried about mandating schools how to teach media literacy. As the noble Lord, Lord Knight, will know, I worry about adding more to their overcrowded curriculum than they already have on their plate, but I note that the amendments actually expand the notion of being taught literacy to adults, away from just children. I suppose I just have some anxiety about Ofcom becoming the nation’s teacher, presenting users of digital services as though they are hapless and helpless. In other words, I am concerned about an overly paternalistic approach—that we should not be patronising.

The noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, keeps reminding us that content should not be our focus, and that it should be systems. In fact, in practically every discussion we have had, content has been the focus, because that is what will be removed, or not, by how we deal with the systems. That is one of the things that we are struggling with.

Literacy in the systems would certainly be very helpful for everybody. I have an idea—it is not an amendment—that we should send the noble Lord, Lord Allan of Hallam, on a UK tour so that he can explain it to us all; he is not here for this compliment, but every time he spoke in the first week of Committee, I think those of us who were struggling understood what he meant, as he explained complicated and technical matters in a way that was very clear. That is my constructive idea.

Amendment 52A from the noble Lord, Lord Knight of Weymouth, focuses on content, with its

“duty to make available information to allow users to establish the reliability and accuracy of content”.

That takes us back to the difficulties we were struggling with on how misinformation and disinformation will be settled and whether it is even feasible. I do not know whether any noble Lords have been following the “mask wars” that are going on. There are bodies of scientists on both sides on the efficacy of mask wearing—wielding scientific papers at dawn, as it were. These are well-informed, proper scientists who completely disagree on whether it was effective during lockdown. I say that because establishing reliability and accuracy is not that straightforward.

I like the idea of making available

“to users such information that may be necessary to allow users to establish the reliability and accuracy of content encountered on the service”.

I keep thinking that we need adults and young people to say that there is not one truth, such as “the science”, and to be equipped and given the tools to search around and compare and contrast different versions. I am involved in Debating Matters for 16 to 18 year-olds, which has topic guides that say, “Here is an argument, with four really good articles for it and four really good articles against, and here’s a load of background”. Then 16 to 18 year-olds will at least think that there is not just one answer. I feel that is the way forward.

The noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, said that I was preaching a counsel of despair; I like to think of myself as a person who has faith in the capacity and potential of people to overcome problems. I had a slight concern when reading the literature associated with online and digital literacy—not so much with the amendments—that it always says that we must teach people about the harms of the online world. I worry that this will reinforce a disempowering idea of feeling vulnerable and everything being negative. One of the amendments talks about a duty to promote users’ “safe use” of the service. I encourage a more positive outlook, incorporating into this literacy an approach that makes people aware that they can overcome and transcend insults and be robust and savvy enough to deal with algorithms—that they are not always victims but can take control over the choices they make. I would give them lessons on resilience, and possibly just get them all to read John Locke on toleration.

Photo of Baroness Prashar Baroness Prashar Crossbench

My Lords, I will speak to Amendments 236, 237 and 238 in my name. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Storey, and the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, for supporting me. Like others, I thank Full Fact for its excellent briefings. I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Knight, for introducing this group of amendments, as it saves me having to make the case for why media literacy is a very important aspect of this work. It is the other side of regulation; they very much go hand in hand. If we do not take steps to promote media literacy, we could fall into a downward spiral of further and further regulation, so it is extremely important.

It is a sad fact that levels of media literacy are very low. Research from Ofcom has found that one-third of internet users are unaware of the potential for inaccurate and biased information. Further, 40% of UK adult internet users do not have the skills to critically assess information they see online, and only 2% of children have skills to tell fact from fiction online. It will not be paternalistic, but a regulator should be proactively involved in developing media literacy programmes. Through the complaints it receives and from the work that it does, the regulator can identify and monitor where the gaps are in media literacy.

To date, the response to this problem has been for social media platforms to remove content deemed harmful. This is often done using technology that picks up on certain words and phrases. The result has been content being removed that should not have been. Examples of this include organisations such as Mumsnet having social media posts on sexual health issues taken down because the posts use certain words or phrases. At one stage, Facebook’s policy was to delete or censor posts expressing opinions that deviated from the norm, without defining what “norm” actually meant. The unintended consequences of the Bill could undermine free speech. Rather than censoring free speech through removing harmful content, we should give a lot more attention to media literacy.

During the Bill’s pre-legislative scrutiny, the Joint Committee recommended that the Government include provisions to ensure media literacy initiatives are of a high standard. The draft version of the Bill included Clause 103, which strengthened the media literacy provisions in the Communications Act 2003, as has already been mentioned. Regrettably, the Government later withdrew the enhanced media literacy clause, so the aim of my amendments is to reintroduce strong media literacy provisions. Doing so will both clarify and strengthen media literacy obligations on online media providers and Ofcom.

Amendment 236 would place a duty on Ofcom to take steps to improve the media literacy of the public in relation to regulated services. As part of this duty, Ofcom must try to reach audiences who are less engaged and harder to reach through traditional media literacy services. It must also address gaps in the current availability of media literacy provisions for vulnerable users. Many of the existing media literacy services are targeted at children but we need to include vulnerable adults too. The amendment would place a duty on Ofcom to promote availability and increase the effectiveness of media literacy initiatives in relation to regulated services. It seeks to ensure that providers of regulated services take appropriate measures to improve users’ media literacy through Ofcom’s online safety function. This proposed new clause makes provision for Ofcom to prepare guidance about media literacy matters, and such guidance must be published and kept under review.

Amendment 237 would place a duty on Ofcom to prepare a strategy on how it intends to undertake the duty to promote media literacy. This strategy should set out the steps Ofcom proposes to take to achieve its media literacy duties and identify organisations, or types of organisations, that Ofcom will work with to undertake these duties. It must also explain why Ofcom believes the proposed steps will be effective in how it will assess progress. This amendment would also place a duty on Ofcom to have regard to the need to allocate adequate resources for implementing this strategy. It would require Ofcom’s media strategy to be published within six months of this provision coming into force, and to be revised within three years; in both cases this should be subject to consultation.

Amendment 238 would place a duty on Ofcom to report annually on the delivery of its media literacy strategy. This reporting must include steps taken in accordance with the strategy and assess the extent to which those steps have had an effect. This amendment goes further than the existing provisions in the Communications Act 2003, which do not include duties on Ofcom to produce a strategy or to measure progress; nor do they place a duty on Ofcom to reach hard-to-reach audiences who are the most vulnerable in our society to disinformation and misinformation.

The Government have previously responded by saying that there is no need to include media literacy provisions in the Bill, citing Ofcom’s Approach to Online Media Literacy, a document published in December 2021, and the Government’s own Online Media Literacy Strategy, published in July 2021. Both these documents make multiple references to the Online Safety Bill placing media literacy duties on Ofcom. The removal of media literacy provisions from the Bill risks this not being viewed as a priority area of the work of Ofcom or future Governments. Meta have said that it would prefer to have clear media literacy duties in the Bill, as this provides clarity. Without regulatory obligations, there is a risk that, in this important area of work, the regulator will not have the teeth it needs to monitor and regulate where there are gaps.

We need to equip society—children and adults—so that they can make knowledgeable and intelligent use of the internet. We have focused on the harm that the internet does, but the proper use of it can have a very positive impact. The previous debate that we had about misinformation and disinformation highlighted the importance of media literacy.

Photo of Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Green 5:30, 11 May 2023

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, and I join her in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Knight, for introducing this group very clearly.

In taking part in this debate, I declare a joint interest with the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, in that I was for a number of years a judge in the Debating Matters events to which she referred. Indeed, the noble Baroness was responsible for me ending up in Birmingham jail, during the time that such a debate was conducted with the inmates of Birmingham jail. We have a common interest there.

I want to pick up a couple of additional points. Before I joined your Lordships’ Committee today I was involved in the final stages of the Committee debate on the economic crime Bill, where the noble Lord, Lord Sharpe of Epsom, provided a powerful argument—probably unintentionally—for the amendments we are debating here now. We were talking, as we have at great length in the economic crime Bill, about the issue of fraud. As the noble Lord, Lord Holmes of Richmond, highlighted, in the context of online harms fraud is a huge aspect of people’s lives today and one that has been under-covered in this Committee, although it has very much been picked up in the economic crime Bill Committee. As we were talking about online fraud, the noble Lord, Lord Sharpe of Epsom, said that consumers have to be “appropriately savvy”. I think that is a description of the need for education and critical thinking online, equipping people with the tools to be, as he said, appropriately savvy when facing the risks of fraud and scams, and all the other risks that people face online.

I have attached my name to two amendments here: Amendment 91, which concerns the providers of category 1 and 2A services having a duty, and Amendment 236, which concerns an Ofcom duty. This joins together two aspects. The providers are making money out of the services they provide, which gives them a duty to make some contribution to combatting the potential harms that their services present to people. Ofcom as a regulator obviously has a role. I think it was the noble Lord, Lord Knight, who said that the education system also has a role, and there is some reference in here to Ofsted having a role.

What we need is a cross-society, cross-systems approach. This is where I also make the point that we need to think outside the scope of the Bill—it is part of the whole package—about how the education system works, because media literacy is not a stand-alone thing that you can separate out from the issues of critical thinking more broadly. We need to think about our education system, which is far too often, for schools in particular, where we get pupils to learn and regurgitate a whole set of facts and then reward them for that. We need to think about how our education system prepares children for the modern online world.

There is a great deal we can learn from the example—often cited but worth referring to—of Finland, which by various tests has been ranked as the country most resistant to fake news. A very clearly built-in idea of questioning, scrutiny and challenge is being encouraged among pupils, starting from the age of seven. That is something we need to transform our education system to achieve. However, of course, many people using the internet now are not part of our education system, so this needs to be across our society. A focus on the responsibilities of Ofcom and the providers has to be in the Bill.

Photo of Baroness Kidron Baroness Kidron Crossbench

My Lords, over the last decade, I have been in scores of schools, run dozens of workshops and spoken to literally thousands of children and young people. A lot of what I pass off as my own wisdom in this Chamber is, indeed, their wisdom. I have a couple of points, and I speak really from the perspective of children under 18 with regard to these amendments, which I fully support.

Media literacy—or digital literacy, as it is sometimes called—is not the same as e-safety. E-safety regimes concentrate on the behaviour of users. Very often, children say that what they learn in those lessons is focused on adult anxieties about predators and bullies, and when something goes wrong, they feel that they are to blame. It puts the responsibility on children. This response, which I have heard hundreds of times, normally comes up after a workshop in which we have discussed reward loops, privacy, algorithmic bias, profiling or—my own favourite—a game which reveals what is buried in terms and conditions; for example, that a company has a right to record the sound of a device or share their data with more than a thousand other companies. When young people understand the pressures that they are under and which are designed into the system, they feel much better about themselves and rather less enamoured of the services they are using. It is my experience that they then go on to make better choices for themselves.

Secondly, we have outsourced much of digital literacy to companies such as Google and Meta. They too concentrate on user behaviour, rather than looking at their own extractive policies focused on engagement and time spent. With many schools strapped for cash and expertise, this teaching is widespread. However, when I went to a Google-run assembly, children aged nine were being taught about features available only on services for those aged over 13—and nowhere was there a mention of age limits and why they are important. It cannot be right that the companies are grooming children towards their services without taking full responsibility for literacy, if that is the literacy that children are being given in school.

Thirdly, as the Government’s own 2021 media literacy strategy set out, good media literacy is one line of defence from harm. It could make a crucial difference in people making informed and safe decisions online and engaging in a more positive online debate, at the same time as understanding that online actions have consequences offline.

However, while digital literacy and, in particular, critical thinking are fundamental to a contemporary education and should be available throughout school and far beyond, they must not be used as a way of putting responsibility on the user for the company’s design decisions. I am specifically concerned that in the risk-assessment process, digital literacy is one of the ways that a company can say it has mitigated a potential risk or harm. I should like to hear from the Minister that that is an additional responsibility and not instead of responsibility.

Finally, over all these years I have always asked at the end of the session what the young people care about the most. The second most important thing is that the system should be less addictive—it should have less addiction built into it. Again, I point the Committee in the direction of the safety-by-design amendments in the name of my noble friend Lord Russell that try to get to the crux of that. They are not very exciting amendments in this debate but they get to the heart of it. However, the thing the young people most often say is, “Could you do something to get my parents to put down their phones?” I therefore ask the Minister whether he can slip something into the Bill, and indeed ask the noble Lord, Lord Grade, whether that could emerge somewhere in the guidance. That is what young people want.

Photo of Baroness Healy of Primrose Hill Baroness Healy of Primrose Hill Deputy Chairman of Committees

My Lords, I strongly support the amendments in the name of my noble friend Lord Knight and others in this group.

We cannot entirely contain harmful, misleading and dangerous content on the internet, no matter how much we strengthen the Bill. Therefore, it is imperative that we put a new duty on category 1 and category 2A services to require them to put in place measures to promote the media literacy of users so that they can use the service safely.

I know that Ofcom takes the issue of media literacy seriously, but it is regrettable that the Government have dropped their proposal for a new media literacy duty for Ofcom. So far, I see no evidence that the platforms take media literacy seriously, so they need to be made to understand that they have corporate social responsibilities towards their clients.

Good media literacy is the first line of defence from bad information and the kind of misinformation we have discussed in earlier groups. Schools are trying to prepare their pupils to understand that the internet can peddle falsehoods as well as useful facts, but they need support, as the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, just said. We all need to increase our media literacy, especially with the increasing use of artificial intelligence, as it can make the difference between decisions based on sound evidence and decisions based on poorly informed opinions that can harm health and well-being, social cohesion and democracy.

In 2022, Ofcom found that a third of internet users are unaware of the potential for inaccurate or biased information online, and 61% of social media users who say they are confident in judging whether online content is true or false actually lack the skills to do so, as my noble friend Lord Knight, has pointed out.

Amendment 91 would mean that platforms have to instigate measures to give users an awareness and understanding of the nature and characteristics of the content that may be on the service, its potential impact and how platforms operate. That is a sensible and practical request that is not beyond the ability of companies to provide, and it will be to everyone’s benefit.

Photo of Lord Russell of Liverpool Lord Russell of Liverpool Deputy Chairman of Committees

My Lords, I indicate my support in principle for what these amendments are trying to achieve.

I speak with a background that goes back nearly 40 years, being involved in health education initiatives, particularly in primary schools. For 24 years—not very good corporate governance—I was the chair of what is now the largest supplier of health education into primary schools in the United Kingdom, reaching about 500,000 children every year.

The principle of preventive health is not a million miles away from what we are talking about today. I take the point that was well made by the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, that piling more and more duties on Ofcom in a well-intentioned way may not have the effect that we want. What we are really looking for and talking about is a joined-up strategy—a challenge for any Government—between the Department for Education, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology, and probably the Department of Health and Social Care, because health education, as it has developed over the last 40 or 50 years, has a lot to teach us about how we think about creating effective preventive education.

It is not just about children; it is about adults. In the readers’ problem page of any newspaper, whether from the left or the right of the political spectrum, the number of people, including those whom most of us would regard as intellectual peers or cleverer than us, who have been scammed in different ways, particularly through online intrusion, shows that it is very prevalent. These are clever, university-educated people who are being taken for a ride.

Yesterday I cleaned out the spam folder in one of my email accounts, which I do fairly quickly. As of about five minutes ago, I have three spam emails. In two of them, a major retailer seems to be telling me that I am the fortunate winner of a Ninja air fryer—not an offer that I propose to take up. The third purports to be from the Post Office, telling me that I have an exciting parcel to open. I am sure that if I clicked on it, something quite unpleasant would happen.

We need to do something about this. The point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, about children saying that we would love this to be less addictive, is a very moot point because the companies know exactly what they are doing. Clearly, we want to encourage children to understand how those tools operate and how one can try to control, mitigate or avoid them, or point them out to others who may not be as savvy. As for the one that was most desirable, parents putting down their telephones, I confess that occasionally, when sitting as a Deputy Speaker in your Lordships’ House, I wish the Government Whips would spend slightly less time looking at their telephones, although I am sure that whatever they are doing is very important government business.

I do not expect the Minister to stand up and say that we have a solution. The tech companies need to be involved. We need to look at good or best practice around the world, which probably has a lot to teach us, but we can do this only if we do it together in a joined-up way. If we try to do it in a fragmented way, we will put all the onus on Ofcom and it ain’t going to work.

Photo of Lord Davies of Brixton Lord Davies of Brixton Labour 5:45, 11 May 2023

My Lords, I spoke at Second Reading about the relationship between online safety and protecting people’s mental health, a theme that runs throughout the Bill. I have not followed the progress in Committee as diligently as I wish, but this group of amendments has caught the eye of the Mental Health Foundation, which has expressed support. It identified Amendment 188, but I think it is the general principle that it supports. The Mental Health Foundation understands the importance of education, because it asked young people what they thought should be done. It sponsored a crucial inquiry through its organisation YoungMinds, which produced a report earlier this year, Putting a Stop to the Endless Scroll.

One of the three major recommendations that emerged from that report, from the feelings of young people themselves, was the need for better education. It found that young people were frustrated at being presented with outdated information about keeping their details safe. They felt that they needed something far more advanced, more relevant to the online world as it is happening at the moment, on how to avoid the risks from such things as image-editing apps. They needed information on more sophisticated risks that they face, essentially what they described as design risks, where the website is designed to drag you in and make you addicted to these algorithms.

The Bill as a whole is designed to protect children and young people from harm, but it must also, as previous speakers have made clear, provide young people themselves with tools so that they can exercise their own judgment to protect themselves and ensure that they do not fall foul, set on that well-worn path between being engaged on a website and ending up with problems with their mental health. Eating is the classic example: you click on a website about a recipe and, step by step, you get dragged into material designed to harm your health through its effect on your diet.

I very much welcome this group of amendments, what it is trying to achieve and the role that it will have by educating young people to protect themselves, recognising the nature of the internet as it is now, so that they do not run the risks of affecting their mental health.

Photo of Lord Clement-Jones Lord Clement-Jones Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Science, Innovation and Technology)

My Lords, this has probably been the most constructive and inspiring debate that we have had on the Bill. In particular, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Knight, for introducing this debate. His passion for this kind of media literacy education absolutely shines through. I thank him for kicking off in such an interesting and constructive way. I am sorry that my noble friend Lord Storey is not here to contribute as well, with his educational background. He likewise has a passion for media literacy education and would otherwise have wanted to contribute to the debate today.

I am delighted that I have found some common ground with the noble Baroness, Lady Fox. The idea of sending my noble friend Lord Allan on tour has great attractions. I am not sure that he would find it quite so attractive. I am looking forward to him coming back before sending him off around the country. I agree that he has made a very constructive contribution. I agree with much of what the noble Baroness said, and the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, had the same instinct: this is a way of better preserving freedom of speech. If we can have those critical thinking skills so that people can protect themselves from misinformation, disinformation and some of the harms online, we can have greater confidence that people are able to protect themselves against these harms at whatever age they may be.

I was very pleased to hear the references to Lord Puttnam, because I think that the Democracy and Digital Technologies Committee report was ground-breaking in the way it described the need for digital media literacy. This is about equipping not just young people but everybody with the critical thinking skills needed to differentiate fact from fiction—particularly, as we have talked through in Committee, on the way that digital platforms operate through their systems, algorithms and data.

The noble Lord, Lord Holmes, talked about the breadth and depth needed for media and digital literacy education; he had it absolutely right about people being appropriately savvy, and the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, echoed what he said in that respect.

I think we have some excellent amendments here. If we can distil them into a single amendment in time for Report or a discussion with the Minister, I think we will find ourselves going forward constructively. There are many aspects of this. For instance, the DCMS Select Committee recommended that digital literacy becomes the fourth pillar of education, which seems to me a pretty important aspect alongside reading, writing and maths. That is the kind of age that we are in. I have quoted Parent Zone before. It acknowledges the usefulness of user empowerment tools and so on, but again it stressed the need for media literacy. What kind of media literacy? The noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, was extremely interesting when she said that what is important is not just user behaviour but making the right choices—that sort of critical thinking. The noble Lord, Lord Russell, provided an analogy with preventive health that was very important.

Our Joint Committee used a rather different phrase. It talked about a “whole of government” approach. When we look at all the different aspects, we see that it is something not just for Ofcom—I entirely agree with that—but that should involve a much broader range of stakeholders in government. We know that, out there, there are organisations such as the Good Things Foundation and CILIP, the library association, and I am sorry that the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, is not in her place to remind us about Doteveryone, an organisation that many of us admire a great deal for the work it carries out.

I think the “appropriately savvy” expression very much applies to the fraud prevention aspect, and it will be interesting when we come to the next group to talk about that as well. The Government have pointed to the DCMS online media strategy, but the noble Lord, Lord Holmes, is absolutely right to ask what its outcome has been, what its results have been, and what resources are being devoted towards it. We are often pointed to that by the Government, here in Committee and at Oral Questions whenever we ask how the media literacy strategy is going, so we need to kick the tyres on that as well as on the kind of priority and resources being devoted to media literacy.

As ever, I shall refer to the Government’s response to the Joint Committee, which I found rather extraordinary. The Government responded to the committee’s recommendation about minimum standards; there is an amendment today about minimum standards. They said:

“Ofcom has recently published a new approach to online media literacy … Clause 103 of the draft Bill”— the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, referred to the fact that in the draft Bill there was originally a new duty on Ofcom—

“did not grant Ofcom any additional powers. As such, it is … unnecessary regulation. It has therefore been removed”.

It did add to Ofcom’s duties. Will the Minister say whether he thinks all the amendments here today would constitute unnecessary regulation? As he can see, there is considerable appetite around the Committee for the kind of media literacy duty across the board that we have talked about today. He might make up for some of the disappointment that many of us feel about the Government’s having got rid of that clause by responding to that question.

The noble Lord, Lord Davies, made an important point about the mental health aspects of digital literacy. A survey run by the charity YoungMinds said that this was one of the main provisions it wanted included in the Bill. Again, on those grounds, we should see a minimum standard set by Ofcom under the terms of the Bill, as we are asking for in the amendment.

The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Media Literacy has done some really good work. Just saying, “This is cross-government”, “We need a holistic approach to this” and so on does not obviate the fact that our schools need to be much more vigorous in what they do in this area. Indeed, the group is advocating a media literacy education Bill, talking about upskilling teachers and talking, as does one of the amendments here, about Ofcom having a duty in this area. We need to take a much broader view of this and be much more vigorous in what we do on media literacy, as has been clear from all the contributions from around the House today.

Photo of Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Culture, Media and Sport) 6:00, 11 May 2023

My Lords, this has been a good debate. I am glad that a number of noble Lords mentioned Lord Puttnam and the committee that he chaired for your Lordships’ House on democracy and digital technologies. I responded to the debate that we had on that; sadly, it was after he had already retired from your Lordships’ House, but he participated from the steps of the Throne. I am mindful of that report and the lessons learned in it in the context of the debate that we have had today.

We recognise the intent behind the amendments in this group to strengthen the UK’s approach to media literacy in so far as it relates to services that will be regulated by the Bill. Ofcom has a broad duty to promote media literacy under the Communications Act 2003. That is an important responsibility for Ofcom, and it is right that the regulator is able to adapt its approach to support people in meeting the evolving challenges of the digital age.

Amendments 52A and 91 from the noble Lord, Lord Knight, and Amendment 91A from the noble Lord, Lord Holmes of Richmond, seek to introduce duties on in-scope services, requiring them to put in place measures that promote users’ media literacy, while Amendment 98 tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Knight, would require Ofcom to issue a code of practice in relation to the new duty proposed in his Amendment 91. While we agree that the industry has a role to play in promoting media literacy, the Government believe that these amendments could lead to unintended, negative consequences.

I shall address the role of the industry and media literacy, which the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, dwelt on in her remarks. We welcome the programmes that it runs in partnership with online safety experts such as Parent Zone and Internet Matters and hope they continue to thrive, with the added benefit of Ofcom’s recently published evaluation toolkit. However, we believe that platforms can go further to empower and educate their users. That is why media literacy has been included in the Bill’s risk assessment duties, meaning that regulated services will have to consider measures to promote media literacy to their users as part of the risk assessment process. Additionally, through work delivered under its existing media literacy duty, Ofcom is developing a set of best-practice design principles for platform-based media literacy measures. That work will build an evidence base of the most effective measures that platforms can take to build their users’ media literacy.

In response to the noble Baroness’s question, I say: no, platforms will not be able to avoid putting in place protections for children by using media literacy campaigns. Ofcom would be able to use its enforcement powers if a platform was not achieving appropriate safety outcomes. There are a range of ways in which platforms can mitigate risks, of which media literacy is but one, and Ofcom would expect platforms to consider them all in their risk assessments.

Let me say a bit about the unintended consequences we fear might arise from these amendments. First, the resource demands to create a code of practice and then to regulate firms’ compliance with this type of broad duty will place an undue burden on the regulator. It is also unclear how the proposed duties in Amendments 52A, 91 and 91A would interact with Ofcom’s existing media literacy duty. There is a risk, we fear, that these parallel duties could be discharged in conflicting ways. Amendment 91A is exposed to broad interpretation by platforms and could enable them to fulfil the duty in a way that lacked real impact on users’ media literacy.

The amendment in the name of my noble friend Lord Holmes proposes a duty to promote awareness of financial deception and fraud. The Government are already taking significant action to protect people from online fraud, including through their new fraud strategy and other provisions in this Bill. I know that my noble friends Lord Camrose, Lord Sharpe of Epsom and Lady Penn met noble Lords to talk about that earlier this week. We believe that measures such as prompts for users before they complete financial transactions sit more logically with financial service providers than with services in scope of this Bill.

Amendment 52A proposes a duty on carriers of journalistic content to promote media literacy to their users. We do not want to risk requiring platforms to act as de facto press regulators, assessing the quality of news publishers’ content. That would not be compatible with our commitment to press freedom. Under its existing media literacy duty, Ofcom is delivering positive work to support people to discern high-quality information online. It is also collaborating with the biggest platforms to design best practice principles for platform-based media literacy measures. It intends to publish these principles this year and will encourage platforms to adopt them.

It is right that Ofcom is given time to understand the benefits of these approaches. The Secretary of State’s post-implementation review will allow the Government and Parliament to establish the effectiveness of Ofcom’s current approach and to reconsider the role of platforms in enhancing users’ media literacy, if appropriate. In the meantime, the Bill introduces new transparency-reporting and information-gathering powers to enhance Ofcom’s visibility of platforms delivery and evaluation of media literacy activities. We would not want to see amendments that would inadvertently dissuade platforms from delivering these activities in favour of less costly and less effective measures.

My noble friend Lord Holmes asked about the Online Media Literacy Strategy, published in July 2021, which set out the Government’s vision for improving media literacy in the country. Alongside the strategy, we have committed to publishing annual action plans each financial year until 2024-25, setting out how we meet the ambition of the strategy. In April 2022 we published the Year 2 Action Plan, which included extending the reach of media literacy education to those who are currently disengaged, in consultation with the media literacy task force—a body of 17 cross-sector experts—expanding our grant funding programme to provide nearly £2.5 million across two years for organisations delivering innovative media literacy activities, and commissioning research to improve our understanding of the challenges faced by the sector. We intend to publish the research later this year, for the benefit of civil society organisations, technology platforms and policymakers.

The noble Lord, Lord Knight, in his Amendment 186, would stipulate that Ofcom must levy fees on regulated firms sufficient to fund the work of third parties involved in supporting it to meet its existing media literacy duties. The Bill already allows Ofcom to levy fees sufficient to fund the annual costs of exercising its online safety functions. This includes its existing media literacy duty as far as it relates to services regulated by this Bill. As such, the Bill already ensures that these media literacy activities, including those that Ofcom chooses to deliver through third parties, can be funded through fees levied on industry.

I turn to Amendments 188, 235, 236, 237 and 238. The Government recognise the intent behind these amendments, which is to help improve the media literacy of the general public. Ofcom already has a statutory duty to promote media literacy with regard to the publication of anything by means of electronic media, including services in scope of the Bill. These amendments propose rather prescriptive objectives, either as part of a new duty for Ofcom or through updating its existing duty. They reflect current challenges in the sector but run the risk of becoming obsolete over time, preventing Ofcom from adapting its work in response to emerging issues.

Ofcom has demonstrated flexibility in its existing duty through its renewed Approach to Online Media Literacy, launched in 2021. This presented an expanded media literacy programme, enabling it to achieve almost all the objectives specified in this group. The Government note the progress that Ofcom has already achieved under its renewed approach in the annual plan it produced last month. The Online Safety Bill strengthens Ofcom’s functions relating to media literacy, which is included in Ofcom’s new transparency-reporting and information-gathering powers, which will give it enhanced oversight of industry activity by enabling it to require regulated services to share or publish information about the work that that they are doing on media literacy.

The noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, asked about the view expressed by the Joint Committee on minimum standards for media literacy training. We agree with the intention behind that, but, because of the broad and varied nature of media literacy, we do not believe that introducing minimum standards is the most effective way of achieving that outcome. Instead, we are focusing efforts on improving the evaluation practices of media literacy initiatives to identify which ones are most effective and to encourage their delivery. Ofcom has undertaken extensive work to produce a comprehensive toolkit to support practitioners to deliver robust evaluations of their programmes. This was published in February this year and has been met with praise from practitioners, including those who received grant funding from the Government’s non-legislative media literacy work programme. The post-implementation review of Ofcom’s online safety regime, which covers its existing media literacy duty in so far as it relates to regulated services, will provide a reasonable point at which to establish the effectiveness of Ofcom’s new work programme, after giving it time to take effect.

Noble Lords talked about the national curriculum and media literacy in schools. Media literacy is indeed a crucial skill for everyone in the digital age. Key media literacy skills are already taught through a number of compulsory subjects in the national curriculum. Digital literacy is included in the computing national curriculum in England, which equips pupils with the knowledge, understanding and skills to use information and communication technology creatively and purposefully. I can reassure noble Lords that people such as Monica are being taught not about historic things like floppy disks but about emerging and present challenges; the computing curriculum ensures that pupils are taught how to design program systems and accomplish goals such as collecting, analysing, evaluating and presenting data.

Photo of Baroness Kidron Baroness Kidron Crossbench

Does the Minister know how many children are on computing courses?

Photo of Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Culture, Media and Sport)

I do not know, but I shall find out from the Department for Education and write. But those who are on them benefit from a curriculum that includes topics such as programming and algorithms, the responsible and safe use of technology, and other foundational knowledge that may support future study in fields such as artificial intelligence and data science.

This is not the only subject in which media literacy and critical thinking are taught. In citizenship education, pupils are taught about critical thinking and the proper functioning of a democracy. They learn to distinguish fact from opinion, as well as exploring freedom of speech and the role and responsibility of the media in informing and shaping public opinion. As Minister for Arts and Heritage, I will say a bit about subjects such as history, English and other arts subjects, in which pupils learn to ask questions about information, think critically and weigh up arguments, all of which are important skills for media literacy, as well as more broadly.

In the debate on the report of the committee led by Lord Puttnam I mentioned the work of Art UK and its programme, the Superpower of Looking. There are many other excellent examples, such as the National Gallery’s Take One Picture scheme, which works with schools to encourage pupils to look at just one work of art from that fabulous collection in order to encourage critical thinking and to look beyond what is immediately apparent. My department is working with the Department for Education on a cultural education plan to ensure that these sorts of initiatives are shared across all schools in the state sector . Additionally, the Department for Education published its updated Teaching Online Safety in Schools non-statutory guidance in January 2023, which provides schools with advice on how to teach children to stay safe online.

There are many ways outside the curriculum in which schoolchildren and young people benefit. I had the pleasure of being a judge for Debating Matters, as did the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett—though not in my case behind bars. A scheme such as this, along with debating clubs in schools, all add to the importance of critical thinking and debate.

Amendment 189 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Knight, seeks to place a requirement on all public bodies to assist Ofcom in relation to its duties under the regime set out by the Bill. The regulator will need to co-operate with a variety of organisations. Ofcom has existing powers to enable this and, where appropriate and proportionate, we have used the Bill to strengthen them. The Bill’s information-gathering powers will allow Ofcom to request information from any person, including public bodies, who appears to have information required by it in order to exercise its online safety function. Placing this broad duty on all public bodies would not be proportionate or effective. It would create an undefined requirement on public bodies and give Ofcom a disproportionate amount of power.

The noble Lord’s amendment uses Ofsted as an example of a public body that would be required to co-operate with Ofcom under the proposed duty. Ofsted already has the power to advise and assist other public authorities, including Ofcom, under Section 149 of the Education and Inspections Act 2006.

I hope noble Lords have been reassured by the points I have set out and will understand why the Government are not able to accept these amendments. I will reflect on the wider remarks made in this debate. With that, I invite the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.

Photo of Lord Knight of Weymouth Lord Knight of Weymouth Labour 6:15, 11 May 2023

My Lords, I am grateful to all Members of the Committee for their contributions to a good debate. I was particularly happy to hear the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, describe it as “inspiring”. There were some great speeches.

I could go on at some length about the educational element to this, but I will constrain myself. In the last year, 1.4% of secondary school pupils in this country did computer science at GCSE. It is a constant source of frustration that computer science is prayed in aid by the Department for Education as a line for Ministers to take in the algorithm they are given to use. However, I understand that the Minister has just to deliver the message.

The noble Baroness was worried about adding to the curriculum. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, I favour a wider-scale reform of the education system to make it much more fit for purpose, but I will not go on.

I was the Minister responsible for the Education and Inspections Act 2006. I would be interested in further updates as to how it is going. For example, does Ofcom ever go with Ofsted into schools and look properly at media literacy delivery? That is what I am trying to tease out with the amendment.

The comments in the speech by the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, were significant. She pointed out the weaknesses in the strategy and the difference between the duty as set out in the 2003 Act and the duties we now need, and the pressing case for these duties to be updated as we take this Bill through this House.

The noble Baroness, Lady Fox, had some misgivings about adding adults, which I think were perfectly answered by the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, in respect of her plea on behalf of young people to help educate parents and give them better media literacy, particularly around the overuse of phones. We have a digital code of conduct in our own house to do with no phones being allowed at mealtimes or in bedrooms by any of us. All of that plays to the mental health issues referred to by my noble friend Lord Davies, and the preventive health aspect referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Russell.

As ever, I am grateful to the Minister for the thorough and comprehensive way in which he answered all the amendments. However, ultimately, the media literacy levels of adults and children in this country are simply not good enough. The existing duties that he refers to, and the way in which he referred to them in his speaking notes, suggest a certain amount of complacency about that. The duties are not working and need to be updated; we need clarity as to who owns the problem of that lack of media literacy, and we are not getting that. This is our opportunity to address that and to set out clearly what the responsibilities are of the companies and the regulator, and how the two work together so that we address the problem. I urge the Minister to work with those of us concerned about this and come forward with an amendment that he is happy with at Report, so that we can update this duty. On that basis, I am happy to withdraw the amendment for now.

Amendment 52A withdrawn.

Clause 16: Duty about content reporting