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Digital Bill of Rights

Volume 754: debated on Monday 16 June 2014


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they consider that there is a case for a digital bill of rights to protect personal privacy and promote a free and open internet.

My Lords, the Government are acutely conscious of the need for the protection of individuals’ privacy both online and offline. We believe that the protection of these rights should go in tandem with, and not be at the expense of, an open, innovative and secure internet that promotes economic growth and freedom of expression. We believe that sufficient safeguards already exist to protect individuals’ privacy through the Data Protection Act 1998, together with other legal remedies.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. We are all under digital surveillance, not only by the security services but also by retailers, hospitals, online suppliers and network operators. They are able to collate massive amounts of data about who we are, where we go, what we buy, who we speak to and even the state of our health. Next year is the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta. To celebrate this in a modern setting, should we not introduce a digital Magna Carta, designed to guarantee our online rights and privacy?

The noble Lord is of course right to remind us of Magna Carta and its impending anniversary. The Government are not, at the moment, minded to introduce a Bill or any legislation of the sort that the noble Lord refers to. Of course we must be nimble to protect those rights which are expressed digitally. However, there are, as I said in my Answer to his Question, a number of remedies available. The Information Commissioner’s Office performs its task well and, for the moment, any legislation brought in by the Government or the party opposite should emphasise not only rights but responsibilities.

Does the Minister think that the new draft data protection regulation now in process in Brussels will provide more or less adequate protection of personal privacy in the event that it is passed without further amendment?

I think that the noble Baroness is referring to the so-called “right to be forgotten”. The Government have some reservations about this. Anxiety has been expressed in the light of this proposed amendment to the directive and the recent decision of the ECJ. The progress of this directive is still a matter of active consideration and negotiation by the Government.

My Lords, I was referring to the draft data protection regulation—which is not a directive—not to the right to be forgotten.

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Mitchell, rightly raised this privacy issue in the Queen’s Speech debate. Most of us are, I suspect, blissfully unaware that the so-called location services on our mobiles act as an insidious spy in the pocket, constantly recording our every movement wherever we go. Should we not at least start by obliging smartphone and network providers to tell us clearly what personal information they collect and how, and how we, as consumers, can turn it off?

The noble Lord is right that this is a source of anxiety and a matter which continues to alarm all sorts of people and organisations. The consumer has a role to insist on this information being provided. That, rather than legislation, is probably the answer for the moment.

Is the Minister aware of the vile, personal internet abuse heaped on supporters of the union in Scotland, including the author JK Rowling—in her case merely for giving £1 million to Better Together? Will he condemn this and indicate whether a Bill as proposed by my noble friend, or some other legislation, could be introduced to protect all of us who suffer such attacks?

I am happy to agree with the noble Lord that this is an appalling practice, and I deplore what has been said about those with a particular viewpoint. The internet being used in this way is the enemy of democracy. We should nevertheless be hesitant before we prevent access to the internet. Russia, China and some of the Arab states prevent access to the internet. Once you start doing so, you prevent some of the advantages, economic and otherwise, of this extraordinary phenomenon, now 25 years old.

My Lords, given the centrality of the internet and digital technologies to the lives of young people, can the Minister tell me what the Government are doing to make certain that young people can explore the creative potential of the online world knowledgably, fearlessly and with an understanding of the privacy issues?

The Government are certainly trying to protect children from access to parts of the internet to which it would be most ill advised for them to have access. We are trying to promote by a number of means responsible use of the internet but, once again, my answer is that, for the moment, we ought to hesitate before using legislation to do this. However, I entirely accept what the noble Baroness says about the importance of responsible access.

The Minister talks about the importance of protecting children, but do not all consumers need protection on the internet? While it may not be appropriate to legislate, would it not be appropriate for the Government to put their weight behind requiring that there is a robust system of identity assurance so that you know who you are dealing with on the internet and a robust system of age assurance so that only people of an appropriate age can access material that is appropriate for that particular age group? The Government’s weight would surely be helpful in making sure that that was delivered by contractors.

The noble Lord is right in that the Government should, and indeed do, work with internet industries to improve—or in some cases to limit—access. An example of that is what they have been doing with children’s access online. The Government have a strong track record of working with the internet industries to drive progress, to allow parents to have network-level domestic filtering, parental internet controls and the like, and to ensure the availability of family-friendly public wi-fi in places children are likely to be. Of course, it must be remembered that all individuals have their normal legal rights, wherever the information is contained.