Online Harms — [Sir Edward Leigh in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:30 pm on 7th October 2020.

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Photo of Holly Lynch Holly Lynch Shadow Minister (Home Office) 2:30 pm, 7th October 2020

The right hon. Lady makes an important point. I am about to come on to some of the different ways that we need to extend the regulation that is already there. She makes the point that that information was going straight into homes; information online is coming straight into somebody’s hand in front of their face, so why do we not extend the same types of regulation to it? I will come on to that in more detail, but I thank her for that point.

As I said, 99% of 12 to 15-year-olds are online, and seven in 10 young people have experienced cyber-bullying, with nearly 40% of young people saying they experienced cyber-bullying on a high-frequency basis, according to the Royal Society for Public Health’s “#StatusofMind” report. Those of us in this Chamber know better than anyone the impact that social media is having on public discourse and on the ability to have safe spaces for the exchange of different opinions, which are vital in any democracy.

One of the reasons the Yorkshire Evening Post was so motivated to launch the Call It Out campaign was realising the impact of the barrage of online abuse directed predominantly, but not exclusively, towards their its female journalists. Editor Laura Collins, who I commend for her leadership on this issue, told me this week that the sentiment of one comment on Facebook responding to an article about the local restrictions in Leeds was not uncommon: it said, “Whoever is publishing these articles needs executing by firing squad”. The newspaper reported it to Facebook on 28 September and nine days later is yet to receive a response.

Our “Clean Up The Internet” initiative, somewhat underwhelmed by the White Paper, feared that the Government did not have the will to truly transform the way the internet is used, so we considered what else would need to happen. Online social media platforms have said far too often that they just provide the platform and can only do so much to oversee the content shared on it, but that holds no water at all where paid ads are concerned. It is a glaring omission from the White Paper that it does not consider misinformation and disinformation, which can be not only shared widely for free, but promoted through online advertising.

As we have heard, advertising in print or on broadcast platforms is regulated through Ofcom and the Advertising Standards Authority, and it must be pre-approved by a number of relevant bodies. There are clear rules, powers and consequences. The internet, however, to quote the NSPCC campaign, is the “wild west”. We must therefore extend that regulation to online advertising as a matter of urgency.

The urgency is twofold. The spread of misinformation and disinformation relating to the pandemic, whether it is conspiracy theories about its origins or even its existence, fake cures or promoting the sale of personal protective equipment by bogus companies, when we are trying to combat a virus, can have fatal consequences. So-called clickbait advertising and the monetisation of items dressed up as news, with the most outrageous and sensational teasers inevitably receiving the most clicks and generating the most income, means that credible news from real journalists with integrity to both their conduct and their content, like those at the Yorkshire Post and the Yorkshire Evening Post, is being driven out of that space. The online business model does not work for those who play by the rules, because there simply are not any.

Let us move on to what else would make a difference. I hope that the Minister will be able to answer a number of questions today about the progress of legislation and regulation. We have had the initial response to the White Paper, but when can we expect to see the Bill published? If we consider that the process began when the Green Paper was published in October 2017 and that the Government have suggested it may be 2023 before new legislation comes into effect, that will be six years, which is an incredibly long time in the life of a child—almost an entire generation.

Opportunities to strengthen protections for children online have been continually missed. During lockdown, large numbers of children have been harmed by entirely avoidable online experiences. If the Government had acted sooner, those consequences may not have been as severe or widespread.