Online Harms — [Sir Edward Leigh in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:40 pm on 7th October 2020.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Chi Onwurah Chi Onwurah Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) 3:40 pm, 7th October 2020

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir Edward. I congratulate my hon. Friend Holly Lynch on securing the debate and other Members on their contributions, which have been thoughtful, well-informed and passionate on this critical subject.

I also declare an interest: as a chartered engineer, I spent 20 years building out the networks that have become the internet. Over that time, but most particularly in the 10 years since I entered Parliament, our lives have been increasingly lived online, with 80% of UK adults using the internet daily or almost every day. Social platforms such as Facebook, Google, YouTube, Instagram and Twitter are woven into the fabric of our lives. Together with a vast array of online apps for everything from video conferencing to healthy eating, they are a critical enabler of an active life as citizen, consumer and economic contributor.

The covid-19 pandemic has accelerated the shift online. At the height of the lockdown, UK adults were spending on average over four hours a day online. For those not digitally excluded, it brought huge benefits, keeping us in touch virtually as physical touch became antisocial. However, as we have heard, particularly for my hon. Friends the Members for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) and for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty), Mrs Miller and the hon. Members for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) and for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), the internet is at times an increasingly dark, challenging and inhospitable place. No matter how vulnerable or how well informed people are, they have little control over content, which is curated by tech platforms, allowing the spread of disinformation, sexual exploitation, fake news, extremism, hatred and other harmful content.

The importance and timeliness of today’s debate can be seen in the number of hon. Members in the Chamber, in yesterday’s United States Congress tech antitrust report and in today’s report from UBS, which reveals the eye-watering levels of wealth in the tech sector. Yet, as we have heard, the UK Government have done nothing. Regulation has not kept pace with technology, crime or consumers, leaving growing numbers of people increasingly exposed to significant online harms. It did not have to be this way.

In 2002, the then Labour Government saw the growth of new communications technologies and undertook a comprehensive, forward-looking review of the issues they raised. The result was the Communications Act 2003 and a new regulator, Ofcom, with the power to ensure that these issues were resolved in the public interest. That regulatory framework was given a 10-year lifespan—I know that because I was head of technology at Ofcom at the time.

In 2012, the Conservative-led Government saw the growth of our online lives, social media and big data, and did—nothing. The 2012 review of online harms may be the most important review we never had. As we have heard, the Government cannot even respond to their own belated and limited online harms consultation in a timely manner, leaving it to big tech to continue to control our online lines.

I consider myself a tech evangelist. I believe that tech is an engine of progress like no other. I believe it can improve the lives of my constituents and enable a more equal, more productive and more sustainable skills- based economy through a fourth industrial green revolution. However, people need to be protected online and empowered to take control of their online lives. The Government need to be on the side of the people, not tech lobbyists.

Hon. Members have set out many of the critical issues, so I will focus my remaining remarks on four areas: children, finance, disinformation and regulation. As emphasised particularly by Carla Lockhart and my hon. Friend Fleur Anderson, the Government are failing in their duty to safeguard children. Worsened by increasing social isolation due to the pandemic, online abuse is being normalised for a whole generation. The previous Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sajid Javid, called the pandemic the “perfect storm” for child abuse. The UK Safer Internet Centre found 8.8 million attempts to access child sexual abuse in one month alone. How will the Government address that, and what will they do to support schools? The centre found that schools desperately need help and support in levelling up online safety. Will the Government replace the UK Safer Internet Centre’s EU funding, so that it can continue to do its good work as we leave the European Union?

On financing, the platform giants’ business model is driven by algorithms that serve up more and more extreme content, which drives extreme behaviours such as radicalisation and self-harm. The model depends on eyeballs and is financed through advertising. Google and Facebook control the online advertising market, which facilitates so much online harm. What plan do the Government have to address the failings of that model or to give the Competition and Markets Authority and the advertising regulators the powers to do so? It is despicable that, nearly three years after her death, the family of Molly Russell have had only limited access to her data and have been denied access to the algorithms and all the content that helped facilitate her suicide. Will the Minister ensure that that changes?

The tech giants’ model also means that Google and Facebook have control of the online high street, directing the traffic on it, even as Amazon unfairly outcompetes the high street in our real-world towns. How will the Government address economic online harms and enable competition?

Our ability to build back from covid will depend on the successful deployment of a vaccine. As we have heard from Andrew Percy and my hon. Friend Chris Elmore, however, misinformation on vaccines—as well as on 5G, the holocaust and just about everything—is freely available and promoted on social media. The Government’s counter-disinformation officer has a full-time dedicated staff of zero. When will they take disinformation seriously, and what will they do about it?

We are a constructive Opposition. It might appear that I have been liberal in my criticism of the Government, but that is born from my experience, the experience of hon. Members present and, most importantly, the experience of constituents up and down the country. Far too many people’s lives are detrimentally affected by what they experience online. As a constructive Opposition, we have proposals as well as criticisms. The Government have been too slow to act, and tech giants have thought themselves unaccountable for too long. However, they can be made accountable. Self-regulation has failed, but robust, reasonable, rational, forward-looking and principles-based regulation can succeed. It is shocking that, in all this time, the Government have not established what those principles should be. Is anonymity a right, or is it a privilege? Is identity a right? How do we decide when legal online content becomes harmful?

Labour has made it clear that we need a digital bill of rights and a legal duty of care to give more powers and protections. We need a statutory regulator for online platforms to crack down on the harm, the hate and the fake. However, we have also launched the Our Digital Future consultation to build consensus on the underlying principles by which our online lives should be guided—it is still taking submissions, if hon. Members would like to contribute. We are also committed to eradicating the digital divide—indeed, the many new digital divides—as a result of which marginalised people have become increasingly excluded from the online world.

Many bodies have contacted me and asked me to raise their concerns about issues from dangerous goods online to data adequacy, small business competition to fake reviews, age verification to facial recognition, and antisemitism to intellectual property. I cannot do them all justice. The Government must outline a clear plan to address the multitude of online harms. It cannot be limited to the platforms simply policing their terms and conditions. Enforcement and redress are required, and I repeat the questions posed by my hon. Friends the Members for Halifax and for Bristol North West (Darren Jones), although I despair of answers. The Government must get a grip if our lives are to flourish online without fear or favour.