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Online Disinformation

Volume 664: debated on Thursday 3 October 2019

Tackling disinformation is a key Government priority, and in our online harms White Paper we seek to take a world-leading approach to doing just that. We also seek within that to develop a media literacy strategy that tackles it through the people who are reading it.

Civil servants have said they cannot see how the data being gathered by could help with Brexit preparations. With the Cambridge Analytica scandal still fresh in the memory, along with the arrogant refusal by Dominic Cummings to assist the departmental Select Committee with its inquiry in any way, does the Minister not see that another mass data gathering exercise in the run-up to an election is a huge red flag for all those worried about a free and fair process?

It is important to say in this context that what the Government are doing, via the Brexit website or any other website, is, first, nothing out of the ordinary, and secondly, serves a very useful purpose in ensuring that we, just like businesses, know our users.

I warmly welcome my hon. Friend and his fellow Ministers to their leadership roles in this remarkable Department.

I urge my hon. Friend to translate the online harms White Paper into legislation as swiftly as possible, and invite him to agree that doing so is not just good for the United Kingdom, because it will create a regulator with the authority to enforce a proper duty of care on online companies, but will also be an act of global leadership, whether or not other countries are acting as swiftly as we are.

I begin by paying tribute to the great work that my right hon. and learned Friend did in overseeing the birth of the online harms White Paper. He is completely right: we should be proud in this House that it is an open, liberal democracy such as the United Kingdom that seeks to lead the way in an immensely difficult area. He is right to say that we should move quickly, but we should also move at a pace that allows us to get this vital issue correct.

I welcome the Secretary of State to her position, and I look forward to her appearing before us at the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee on 16 October. She knows that we undertook a large inquiry into fake news and disinformation, for which the Prime Minister’s chief adviser refused to attend the Committee, and is therefore in contempt of Parliament. Would she like to bring Mr Dominic Cummings with her on 16 October?

I hesitate to speak on behalf of the Secretary of State in response to every aspect of that question, but I am confident that she does not need to bring a man to answer questions for her.

We would have a world-class regime for shutting down fake news and disinformation if we had courts that were actually accessible in the fight against misbehaviour by big tech. The breakthrough in the Court of Appeal yesterday, in the case of Richard Lloyd, shows just how hard it is to bring to account big tech firms, like Google, that have clearly misbehaved. So when the Minister brings the online harms Bill to the House—he might tell us when he expects that to happen—will he look again at the proposals that we will table in Committee to make it far easier to bring class actions against some of the biggest firms on earth? He has the chance to level the legal playing field against big tech; will he tell the House that he is determined to seize it?

We are absolutely determined to tackle these vital issues, because we know that the behaviour of social media companies is not always acting in the best interests of all our constituents. Of course we will look at any proposals that are advanced by the Labour party, but it is important to say that we need to get this right, and that requires us to work with industry, as well as against it.