My Lords, the Government recognise the problems that artificial intelligence and digitally manipulated content may pose. We are considering those issues carefully as part of cross-Whitehall efforts to tackle online manipulation and disinformation. We have seen no evidence that these or other techniques have been used to interfere successfully in the UK’s democratic processes, but we are actively engaging with international partners, industry and civil society to tackle the threat of disinformation and propaganda.
The Minister’s brief will have told him that this technology of breaking up speeches into tiny fragments and then refabricating them to say something completely different is now very well developed. Would he not agree that this technology could be of benefit to our creative industries but a threat to our public discourse? Bearing in mind that in recent years the Government have been behind the curve in the management of new technology, what steps are they taking now to ensure that this technology is used for public good and not for public abuse and misinformation?
I agree with the noble Lord that this has possibilities for ill as well as for good. He is absolutely right that artificial intelligence can be used to create these fake images. It creates not just the fake films and images; it also creates the problem that, when true films and images are made, the person concerned can deny them as fakes. It is a truism to say that we are always behind the curve—I do not accept that—but whether it is to do with crime, defence or political ideas and things like that, there is always a balance between new technology and the ways to tackle it. We are taking this very seriously and looking across Whitehall at what we can do to educate people and to do more research on this. There has been no evidence that it has interfered with UK democratic processes, but we are keeping a close eye on that and doing many things across government to look at it.
My Lords, how can we believe that the Government will take urgent action in relation to this potential manipulation of our electoral process when they are doing absolutely nothing about the Russian intervention supporting the leave campaign in the EU referendum?
My Lords, should we not at least be prepared to do something about this? Does the Minister not recognise that these challenges to which reference has been made are particularly relevant to a referendum campaign, as we have learned to our cost? Given that there is obviously now no potential majority in the House of Commons for any Brexit outcome of any sort, there is an increasing likelihood of the necessity of going back to the people and have a people’s vote. What steps should or can now be taken at least to look at the recommendations of the Independent Commission on Referendums, which goes into some detail on these issues, and the recommendations of the Electoral Commission so that we can have some legislation in place if and when we have another vote?
I agree with the noble Lord that we should be prepared to deal with these issues. That is why we are looking at better research to better understand the problem. We are engaging with the tech sector and the social media platforms to do something about these issues and developing policies on education, tech and regulation. We are also working on strategic communications to deal with this disinformation and setting up, as noble Lords will know, the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation to look at some of these very difficult ethical problems surrounding information. We have to remember that disinformation per se is not illegal and we still want a society where we can have freedom of expression as much as possible.