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Online Disinformation

Volume 658: debated on Thursday 11 April 2019

On Monday, my Department, in conjunction with the Home Office, published the Online Harms White Paper, which sets out our plans for a new regulatory framework for online harms underpinned by an independent regulator. As part of that framework, the regulator will publish a code of practice to ensure that platforms take proportionate steps to tackle the issue of disinformation and other forms of online manipulation.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. I also welcome the White Paper. The Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, on which I serve, took a lot of information on the threat to our democracy; the White Paper is not silent on that, but it is not very talkative about it. Will he outline what steps the Government plan to take to protect our democracy?

The hon. Lady is right: it is an important area. The Select Committee has done very good work in drawing attention to it. As I made clear on Monday in my statement to the House, we should not see the Online Harms White Paper as the only part of the Government’s response in this area; there will be other important components to it. One of those that will cover the area that she describes will be the work that the Cabinet Office is doing, which I hope we will see very shortly.

Any regulator will be effective only if it has proper sanctioning powers with teeth. With tech companies turning over billions of pounds of profits and creating untold online harm, particularly to our young people, will the Secretary of State give more information about what kind of sanctioning powers—especially financial sanctions—the regulator will have? Will he give us an idea of what he will do to make sure that companies get in line?

The hon. Lady is right that the sanctions available to the regulator will be important here. The White Paper includes a number of options. We will want to look at remedial notices and at fines, potentially comparable to General Data Protection Regulation fines, which, as she knows, are very substantial indeed. We will also want to consider individual director liability and, at the top end of the scale, internet service provider blocking for those websites that refuse to co-operate with what the regulator requires.

The rocket fuel for fake news and disinformation is the tidal wave of dark money flowing into dark ads that are targeted with psychographic precision. Vote Leave has admitted breaking the rules—cheating by pumping in way over the odds during the referendum campaign—but the Secretary of State has done nothing to ensure that we have the transparency we need ahead of a possible second referendum. Will he think again and bring in the honest ads Act we have proposed, so we can finally see who is paying for what—not least the dark ads targeted at Members of this House?

As I am sure the right hon. Gentleman will recognise, it is important that the Government act collectively on this matter. As I indicated to the hon. Member for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott), we will shortly see some work by the Cabinet Office, which will deal with some of the questions around transparency that he perfectly fairly raises. However, I hope he will also accept that this Government have given the Information Commissioner additional powers to enable her to take the sorts of actions that he would wish to see taken. Of course, it is for the Electoral Commission and the Information Commissioner to act in these spaces.