Question for Short Debate
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the Church of England’s social media community guidelines, published on 1 July, and what steps they are taking to promote positive social media behaviour.
My Lords, the Church of England’s digital guidelines are an attempt to encourage constructive engagement across all national social media accounts run by the Church and the two Archbishops. The digital charter is a voluntary addition aimed at fostering a positive atmosphere online. To date, the two prongs of the campaign have been signed by individuals, charities, groups, schools and churches, representing thousands of people. These are not simply some guidelines or suggestions for people involved in the Church of England, but rather, based on universal principles of truth and respect for others, they are a call to action for all people, whether Christian, of other faiths or of no faith at all.
As parliamentarians, we are united by a passion for free speech and robust discussion. For some, however, the rough and tumble of online debate has degenerated into the use of unpalatable and sometimes unacceptable rhetoric. Like many of us here, I enjoy vigorous online discussion. I like talking and debating with people who think differently from me, and just sometimes, I hope they might appreciate my input as well. It seems that one of the things I am always doing is learning from people who have different perspectives. Sometimes, this banter can descend into light-hearted name-calling. Members of this place may not be familiar with the nickname given to me by the gambling industry. For my campaigning to protect victims of problem gambling, I am, I am told, known as the bookie-bashing Bishop of St Albans. I take it all in good stead. Indeed, I have been called much worse things in the past.
This jostling online is not the sort of thing that these guidelines attempt to address or curb. They in no way aim to reduce debate or curb free speech in our country. Indeed, we would like more of it. The problem is that, due to the relative anonymity of sitting at home behind a computer screen or using a smartphone in private, far away from the people with whom we are communicating, it is all too easy to use abusive or offensive language that we probably would not use if we were talking to someone face-to-face.
I suggest that this is especially true for those who occupy public roles. Like your Lordships, I know many Members of Parliament and Peers who experience regular abuse, attacks and verbal assault. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Newcastle captured the sense of coarsening public debate when she said:
“It cannot be right that carrying a panic alarm is now a necessity for some MPs and that constituency offices and homes are considered as places of risk for them”.—[Official Report, 25/3/19; col. 1635.]
The horror of Jo Cox’s murder three years ago left us all with an inspirational legacy to pick up and run with. Her maiden speech, highlighting unity and togetherness beyond partisan distinction, is something nurtured by these online guidelines.
The call to “disagree well” after the European referendum goes to the core of these guidelines. The two Archbishops who endorsed this project urged us to “apply our values” when we engage in “robust disagreements”. As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford highlighted last month, Jesus taught us that, “Blessed are the peacemakers”, and thus our online presence should seek to,
“reconcile those of different views with imagination and good humour”.
That call to disagree well builds on Christians who came together online in 2016 to create Love Your Neighbour and Movements of Love, formed in response to post-Brexit discord. Following Jo Cox’s death, I think all of us remain in shock at online behaviour which tragically spills out in the non-virtual world. Trolls are occasionally now guiding society’s behaviour online, in some cases pushing an abusive and exclusionary attitude to fellow social media users.
Society’s vulnerable and young are facing the consequences of this dominance. Nine in 10 five to 15 year-olds are online, and as a nation we spend on average 24 hours a week on screens. Almost 70% of us say we are concerned about harmful online content. As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Gloucester said:
“Research conducted … in 2016 found that more than 80% of the teenagers surveyed had seen or heard online hate about a specific group”.—[Official Report, 11/1/18; col. 376.]
Nevertheless, the dominance of this hate narrative online is not inevitable. The most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury was right when he said:
“Each time we interact online we have the opportunity either to add to currents of cynicism and abuse or to choose instead to share light and grace”.
These guidelines provide a codification of that choice between cynicism and positivity online. I would encourage all individuals and groups to commit to playing their part in making social media a more welcoming place. Indeed, I hope that many Members of your Lordships’ House will sign up to the charter, which can be found on the Church of England website.
Obviously, the internet provides a space of unimaginable energy, linking people from every background and allowing a diversification of views previously thought unthinkable. We do not want to lose that great asset. The Church, like many others, has grasped the benefits of social media. Campaigns such as Follow the Star during Advent reached nearly 8 million British people. Similar levels of reach were achieved in our subsequent Lent, Easter and Pentecost campaigns. We are very grateful for this online presence.
No matter the many benefits offered, academic Dr Bex Lewis is quite right when she states:
“The distance and anonymity created between people when they communicate online can help shed inhibitions in a way that is often blamed for abusive behaviour”.
The cloak of anonymity can often lead to outrageous abuse. I welcome the efforts of Her Majesty’s Government with their online harms White Paper. Alongside the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford, I submitted a response to this during the consultation period.
It is not just the anonymity which is the problem; it is also the instantaneous nature of communication. As a young priest, I was always taught that when you are angry because somebody has wound you up, the best thing to do is sit down, write an absolutely stonking letter and leave it overnight. Then, the next morning, you write something more temperate which is more likely to enable proper communication. The problem is that online it is so easy to just respond immediately without very much thought.
As I highlighted in this Chamber, the ambition to make us the safest place in the world to be online and aims to curb bullying, insulting, intimidating and humiliating behaviours are admirable. Yet I also told the Minister that any regulator would never be a “silver bullet” to online problems because these complications are societal in nature. That need to address these complications is felt strongly. As a Church, these guidelines function simply as a contribution to the life of the nation, and the response, met without cynicism but with genuine appreciation, shows they are wanted. When these guidelines were launched on Facebook, the livestream was seen by 168,000 people, and when the Diocese of Oxford shared a further eight points of online behavioural guidance, it was the most popular post it has ever shared.
This is simply the beginning of a discussion, started by those of us on these Benches, but taken up by communities outside Parliament, outside Anglicanism and hopefully into the wider world. I share them in the hope that they will enable us to think more broadly about the whole range of issues. I look forward to contributions from noble Lords on this important subject, as we seek to keep the online world open in a way that allows it to contribute positively.
I thank the right reverend Prelate for initiating this debate. I read with interest the Church of England’s first ever social media guidelines, which encourage positive engagement across social media accounts run by the Church of England; encourage others to sign up to a voluntary digital charter and to foster a more positive atmosphere online; and hope for people of other faiths or none to use the principles of truth, kindness, welcome, inspiration and togetherness when they use social media. Of course, we all want to live in a world of tolerance, both on and offline, and should strive to do so, but that must not stop us engaging to prevent real social injustices. As the right reverend Prelate mentioned, debates should be vigorous and fearless. Human rights violations and so on need to be challenged. We must not hold back for fear of appearing intolerant.
As in the offline world, there is an important place online for rigorous debate and disagreement. There are already strong laws in place, and we should be mindful that if those laws have not been broken, yet material deemed offensive is removed, it does not then become a form of censorship.
I sit on the Communications Committee, and a recently published report from that committee, Regulating in a Digital World, was debated in this Chamber a couple of weeks ago. The committee took the view that a principle-based approach was the best way forward, and we came up with 10 principles. I shall not list them all now—noble Lords can read them in the report, but please, do not all rush now to get your copy. Two of these principles—parity and education awareness-raising—fit well with what the Church of England is seeking to achieve.
The continual mantra is that there should be equivalent outcomes online and offline. We should all be mindful of our behaviour in the digital world. The focus should be on behaviour. We all have responsibilities in how we behave towards one another. It rests with society to come together to stand up for our common principles, whether face to face or in the digital world. Self-regulation is clearly not enough to right the wrongs. I look forward to the Minister enlightening us on the department’s plans for further regulation; there is no doubt that society needs to step up to the challenge and show that it will not tolerate irresponsible online behaviour.
As we all know, more often than not good behaviour needs to be taught, and therefore learned. That is where education comes in. It is vital that we start educating children about social media. Digital literacy should be the fourth pillar of a child’s education, alongside reading, writing and mathematics. Children require guidance to report and not share inappropriate behaviour, as they are encouraged to do in day-to-day life, in the home or the playground. Parents and those safeguarding children have a vital role to play in educating children about online behaviours, but parents require the tools to do this. Many parents lack the knowledge and confidence, so there is a requirement for more guidance that is easily accessible and clear, allowing parents to help their children to live responsibly when using social media.
All of us have a role to play in how we act online; to set an example of right and wrong; to advise, teach and support those who get it wrong; and to implement the law where it is broken. The most reverend Primate the Archbishop of York made a good point at the launch, which the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans also mentioned: sometimes it is good to just stop and think. The most reverend Primate said that it is perhaps about stopping, counting to 10 and asking whether a spiteful statement on social media will change a situation for the better. We can all reflect on that, and would it not be a good start if some—no names mentioned—counted to 10 forwards, then stopped and counted to 10 backwards, before tweeting at all times of the day and night?
My Lords, I have never tweeted—it is far too dangerous—but I know what the noble Baroness is talking about. My declaration is that I am a resident of St Albans. I am not an Anglican, but I and all the citizens of St Albans enjoy the benefits of our wonderful abbey, and the ecumenical approach of Bishop Alan and our dean, Jeffrey John, to making that abbey available to all faiths and none with a wonderful programme of outreach.
I very much welcomed the launch of these social media community guidelines by the Church of England, and the digital charter. If I may tread on the right reverend Prelate’s territory, reading it, I did not think it was original. It could be summed up as telling us that when using social media, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. I was talking to a fellow Peer involved in this, who was rather depressed that such good intentions were all too late. The trolls, the bullies, the paedophiles, the groomers, the fantasists, the conspiracy peddlers and the political extremists of all shades have already polluted the waters and debased the standards of what was originally a magnificent, free good. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Chisholm, that there is a need for us to stand up for free speech and the rights of individuals affected by that kind of behaviour.
I do not believe that the internet is beyond regulation or the rule of law. I also agree with the noble Baroness that nor is it a one-way street. I have mentioned how impressed I was when, answering a Question about young people’s mental health, the Minister pointed out that, yes, trolling, abusing and bullying was causing young people great stress, but often it was on the internet that they found the solution or the way forward in their distress, so it not a one-way street. I welcome the Government’s attempts to achieve cross-party agreement on internet regulation: how much should be statutory and how much voluntary, who should be the regulators and what powers should they have?
As the Minister knows, I believe that many of these matters could be dealt with by a pre-legislative scrutiny committee of both Houses, but there are issues that need urgent “this day” action, and could and should be dealt with now, in advance of the main legislation. I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, and my noble friend Lady Grender will address these later in the debate. In the meantime, Ofcom, the Information Commissioner’s Office and the Electoral Commission should be charged with doing the groundwork for the regulator that this legislation will create. All three bodies have proved robust but, in the case of the Electoral Commission, underpowered.
Again, I chime with the noble Baroness, Lady Chisholm, in saying that Ofcom should promote digital literacy as a fourth pillar of education, alongside reading, writing and maths. As the line between print and online becomes increasingly blurred, the big internet companies—the FANGs—should see Impress as a possible independent regulator. The GDPR has shown that it is possible to achieve international standards. We should aim for a kind of Geneva convention against internet harm. We must also beware of slippage. The Government have shown good intentions, but we are two weeks away from a new Administration. The FANGs are powerful lobbyists. We will see where their priorities lie if we attempt to bring in regulation that really works.
Let me end with a quote from the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, on whose committee I served in 2003, before the Communications Bill. We decided not to try regulating the internet as it came upon us, but the noble Lord said in his evidence:
“Our citizens can only be protected from online harm if the political system upon which society rests is itself rigorously safeguarded”.
That is why this call to arms we are involved in makes the Church’s document so timely. I am grateful to the right reverend Prelate for providing the opportunity to discuss these matters today.
My Lords, I too thank my dear brother, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans, for securing this short debate. Although I will not reveal to the House the various nicknames that I have accrued over the years—not without my lawyer present—I will admit that I was not very well behaved at school. At the boys’ secondary modern school in Essex that I attended, expectations were staggeringly low and it was easy to meet them. I happily dozed, dreamed and truanted my way through what we used to call the fifth form, and I did not do very well in the O-levels that followed. Shocked by the realisation that work, and not very interesting work at that, was my only option, and because the boys’ school did not really have a sixth form, I enrolled in the girls’ school next door and my life changed. A school is only as good as its teachers, whatever you call it. At that school, the expectations were high and, as a result, my attitude, behaviour, commitment and, indeed, results changed.
If there are no expectations, if bad behaviour has no consequence, then we create a culture rather like the one that we currently have on most of the internet and especially on social media, such as Twitter and Facebook, and below the line—not a place to go—on so many online articles: rudeness, prejudice, uninformed ignorance, hatred of minorities and much worse. Cruelty, harassment and grooming can go unchallenged and even undetected, and no one seems prepared to take responsibility. Young people learn how to self-harm. Everyone has to be Instagram ready. Casual abuse that would not be tolerated anywhere else is considered normal. And instead of changing it, instead of saying that it should not be this way, we teach our children resilience, as if somehow homophobic, racist or sexist bullying was inevitable. It is not, which is why the civilised and civilising aspiration of this charter offers hope by raising the expectation of how we behave and how we are treated online.
Some will scoff and polish their put-downs: “The Church of England says it’s nice to be nice to each other. How nice. But what difference will it make?” Actually, quite a lot. I learned how to treat others well not because of my innate goodness—that is the secular ethical fallacy—but because of a culture of high expectations in family, school, community and church, as well as scouts, guides, trade unions, you name it. Many organisations have high expectations about what is right and acceptable. It was these bodies that helped me to tame those other instincts that dwell alongside that which is good: envy, avarice, vengeance, vanity, hubris, violence and greed. They are within us all. I am a moral maze, and I need help and guidance to become more than where my unchecked instincts may take me if I am left alone. Alongside all the tremendous goods that the digital age brings us, there is online a terrible isolation as I rant and rage from the privacy of my own phone, no longer seeing the humanity of the person who has simply become the object of my scorn—although of course once I have clicked “Accept”, everyone is looking at me.
The charter is just the beginning; it sets a standard that will help us all be the best we can be. But the internet itself, especially those who profit most from the monopolies that we have allowed to develop, also needs to be designed by agreed ethical principles, such as the 10 principles that the noble Baroness, Lady Chisholm, has alluded to in the Select Committee report, Regulating in a Digital World, and then regulated fairly and fearlessly by a new body, such as a digital authority, with powers to oversee all this work. Have the Government considered this far-reaching proposal again, as it was, if not dismissed, certainly not taken up in their original response to that report.
I welcome the Government’s decision to establish a statutory duty of care on internet providers to take responsibility for the safety of their users, because self-regulation is not working. Moderation processes are unacceptably opaque and slow. As with any other public space or public organisation, there must be expectations of behaviour that we all sign up to.
The charter represents a big step forward. It is good that the Church of England has been able to take a lead in this way, but that is only half the job. It addresses what each one of us can do individually to moderate our own behaviour and raise expectations. Drawing on the report, Regulating in a Digital World, whose far-reaching ethical vision has still not been fully embraced, I call upon the Government to do the other half.
I thank the right reverend Prelate for tabling today’s debate and draw the attention of the House to my interests as set out in the register. I very much welcome the Church of England’s social media guidelines. They have great force in their simplicity and generosity of spirit, and clearly outline our responsibilities to conduct our online interactions respectfully and honestly. I will focus my contribution on how they might be applied to the social media companies themselves.
For example, the first guideline is:
“Be safe. The safety of children, young people and vulnerable adults must be maintained”.
Far from taking reasonable steps to maintain the safety of children or to support their emotional and social development, social media companies refuse to even recognise the global consensus that a child is a person under the age of 18 as codified by the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Tick a box and a child of 13 can gain access to an environment that routinely exposes them to adult risks and deprives them of the rights that we have fought for decades to establish. Furthermore, minimum age limits are routinely bypassed and poorly enforced, a fact freely admitted by both Snap and Facebook when they appeared before Parliament in recent months. This leaves children of all ages unprotected through many of their most vulnerable years. For children to be safe online, social medial companies first have to provide a safe environment.
A similar scenario unfolds when you consider the guideline:
“Be honest. Don’t mislead people about who you are”.
The spread of misinformation and disinformation polarises debate, impacts on elections, drives the rise in intolerance and fuels spurious health claims and conspiracy theories. This is an area of considerable attention for legislators around the globe but, while much is said about those who create the misinformation, it is important to note that the platforms are not neutral bystanders. In an attention economy where clicks mean money, and the longer that someone stays on line the more you maximise your opportunity to serve them an ad or learn something about them that you can sell later, the spread of the extraordinary, the extreme or the loud is not an unintended consequence of your service; it becomes central to its purpose.
Being honest is not only about information but about the nature of the service itself. When we walk into a tea room, a cinema, a pub or a strip club, we understand the opportunities and risks that those environments offer and are given nuanced indicators about their suitability for ourselves or our children. Social media companies, by contrast, parade as tea rooms but behave like strip clubs. A simple answer would be greater honesty about what the nature of the service holds.
This leads me quite neatly to the guidance to,
“Follow the rules. Abide by the terms and conditions”.
Terms and conditions should enable users to decide whether a service is offering them an environment that will treat them fairly. They are, by any measure, a contract between user and platform; it is therefore unacceptable that these published rules are so opaque, so asymmetrical in the distribution of rights and responsibilities, so interminably long—and then so inconsistently and poorly upheld by the platforms themselves.
This failure to follow the rules is not without consequence. Noble Lords will remember the case of Molly Russell, who took her own life in 2017 after viewing and being auto-recommended graphic self-harm and suicide content. The spokesperson for one of the platforms responsible, Pinterest, said:
“Our existing self-harm policy already does not allow for anything that promotes self-harm. However, we know a policy isn’t enough. What we do is more important than what we say”.
Indeed, and while that tragedy has been widely and bravely publicised by Molly’s father, it is neither the only tragedy nor the only failure. Failure is built into the system. The responsibility for upholding terms and conditions must be a two-way street. I warmly welcome the Government’s proposal in the online harms White Paper:
“The regulator will assess how effectively these terms are enforced as part of any regulatory action”,
and I welcome the Information Commissioner’s similar commitment in the recently published age-appropriate design code.
Let me finish with this. On Monday, 22 children came to the House to see me and offer their thoughts on a 5Rights data literacy workshop that they had been doing for some months. Their observations can be usefully summed up by the fifth of the Church’s guidelines:
“Take responsibility. You are accountable for the things you do”.
These children and young people categorically understood their responsibilities, but they powerfully and explicitly expressed the requirement for the platforms to meet theirs too. It is for the platforms to make their services safe and respectful, for government to put in place the unavoidable requirement that they do so, and for the rest of us to keep speaking up until it is done. With that in mind, I commend the right reverend Prelate for his tireless work to that end and ask the Minister to reassure the House that the promises made to children and parents by the outgoing Executive will be implemented by the incoming Executive.
My Lords, I congratulate the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans on securing this debate, and the Church of England on the publication of its guidelines. For me, as a person of no faith, their inclusion of people like me—and indeed of other faiths—is also welcome.
I note that there are nine codes in total and five principles. While we were on the artificial intelligence Select Committee, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford spoke of having 10 laws for AI. This resulted in a very amusing Guardian version of the 10 commandments for robots, the 10th being:
“Thou shalt remember that we can always unplug you if you get too uppity”.
Unfortunately, these words were not quite so effective when I tested them out on a teenager on an X-Box, who was about to win a game on Fortnite Battle Royale. In the end, the AI Select Committee managed to get it down to five principles that we published as part of our report in April 2018, subtitled Ready, Willing and Able? Understanding and establishing principles and codes for future generations in a world where the tech giants overshadow Governments in size, scale and reach is not only important; it is vital.
In spite of the car crash that is Brexit, I believe the UK remains in a strong position to lead on ethics and these guidelines are a useful contribution to that debate. In the same way that the UK led the way on the ethical debates around in vitro fertilization, the new online harms White Paper is a significant step forward in an area where the UK can lead. The statement by the Osaka G20 trade and economy Ministers, with the annexe on AI principles drawn from the OECD, shows that international agreement on the ethical issues in this area is possible.
The Minister will be aware that we on these Benches support the White Paper and have said so in our submission, with qualifications and comments. We agree that social media companies should have a new statutory duty of care to their users, above all to children and young people. As ever, I salute the work of the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, who has tirelessly campaigned for the right to childhood. As she described, leaving it to the big tech firms to deliver on a voluntary basis is not working and is no longer an option. We support the Government’s adherence to the principle of regulating on a basis of risk and believe that Parliament and government have a clear role in defining the duty of care, with the chosen regulator settling the final form of the code.
We on these Benches believe that that regulator should be Ofcom. In our view, Ofcom has the necessary experience of producing codes and walking that tightrope between freedom of expression and duty of care. It also has the experience of working with other regulators. We believe that Ofcom should be set the task early of working on those draft codes, as children have waited long enough for this protection to be a reality for them. But we also recognise that the complexity of this issue would be best served by pre-legislative scrutiny and believe the Communications Act 2003 to be an excellent model. I am not saying that simply because my noble friend Lord McNally played such a significant role in that process. We also believe that an earlier Bill setting up the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation as a regulatory advisory body in this field is important.
The right reverend Prelate posed an excellent question to the Government in his Motion: what steps are they taking,
“to promote positive social media behaviour”?
In a world where a President of the United States takes to Twitter to slate our Prime Minister, this feels like a surreal question to ask right now but is definitely one that should be asked. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s answers on it. I have only one other question for him to answer today, so I really hope that he will be able to respond to it in his summation. I am sure he agrees that schools need to educate children about how to use, and question, social media with the kindness and respect that the Church of England suggests. To achieve that, digital literacy, advice and support for children and parents is essential, as the noble Baroness, Lady Chisholm, described. It is good that there is now some evidence from Ofcom that children are learning to think more critically about the websites they visit, and that they recall being taught how to use the internet safely.
However, what of the generation that has been abandoned to the Wild West of the internet? What additional support can be given while we deliberate here about the best forms of legislation? I will be more specific. A year ago, to comply with GDPR, social media sites such as Facebook, WhatsApp, Pinterest, Instagram and others raised their age restrictions from 13 to 16. What happens to that cohort of children who are left behind, many of whom—according to Ofcom—were underage on social media already? Do parents have to inform on them and their mates, or close down the networks where they talk with each other about homework that is due? What advice does the Minister have for those parents? I ask only that he agree to look at this very specific issue—the children left behind by the ban as it was introduced—and if he would undertake to write to me, I would be very grateful.
Social media should and can be a place of truth, kindness, welcome, inspiration and togetherness. The Church of England’s principles for the use of social media should be commended for their optimistic goals. As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford put it, we should be allowed to raise our expectations. These are goals which all of us should try to adopt.
My Lords, this has been such an interesting debate. At the heart of the online harms White Paper, there is a declared statutory duty of care; it is at the heart of the thinking and outworking of the principles contained within that White Paper.
This is such a week for us to have this debate. Reference has been made to events in Washington, which show the way in which the online facilities can be used. My worry is that such extravagant, Wild West uses of the technology are rapidly becoming normal. The normalising of such uses worries me. It plays well with something the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford said about the moral maze. There is within all of us that which can be appealed to by good and by what is not good. We should take note of that.
Some Members of our Benches have felt the need to resign the Whip. I heard about the amount of abuse one of them received in one week via these same social media. To have this debate in the context of happenings of that kind adds a dimension to the thinking required of us.
There was a great event in our home over the weekend. For the first time, my middle son entrusted his son to my wife and me. It is amazing how our three children think we are novices in the art of bringing up children. We brought them up, but we had to pass all kinds of tests before Thomas was allowed to come home to us. What a remarkable young man he has turned out to be: “May I leave the table, grandpa? Can I help wash up the dishes? You do not need to come and help me in the bathroom; I will call when I need you”. He was exemplary. It proves that a good upbringing with good teaching at home can achieve all kinds of things. I happen to know that that child was quite wilful when he was younger. All three of my children were. I know that a lot of parenting is about harnessing the energy that can express itself harmfully, and somehow using that same energy for outcomes that are altogether more beneficial. That is where we are at home—a little domestic story with which to begin.
I believe that human nature is much more malign than the Church of England seems to think, but Methodists have always have had a more severe doctrine of humanity than the Church of England does. Natural optimism does not come to us, because we have to fight against the establishment for our basic rights. It is scriptural too that all men are sinners,
“and fall short of the glory of God”.
I can give noble Lords the biblical references if they want. Yes, I know it is Romans.
Addressing questions of behaviour and ethics requires us to take an appropriate view of the nature of humanity and that inbuilt insecurity that drives us to want more, to master more, to achieve more and, sometimes, all of that at any expense. The internet is a tool for that basic instinct of human nature that, left untrammelled, can be dangerous for society. I fear the worst. This statutory duty of care is to be safe, respectful, kind, honest and take responsibility. Why did the Church of England stop at nine when, biblically, it should be 10? We heard the 10 commandments mentioned, and the noble Lord, Lord McNally, provided what might be a 10th: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. I prefer the negative form of that golden rule: do not do unto others what you would not have them do unto you. It is a more honest place to start for human natures that, by their biological conditioning and the insecurity that comes from that, want more and to master more. That, like my grandson Thomas, somehow must be educated and channelled. We need to turn the “Titanic”—perhaps that is an unfortunate example; I should say the tanker—in midstream. It has travelled a long way and will take a lot of curbing.
I chime with the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, who said that, as well as applying rules to human nature, we should think of how to turn them back on the platforms that provide them with the tools that they also need to know how to handle. I am 15 seconds short of the time, and all I can say is that a statutory duty of care requires us to identify our neighbour and do our best to help them, as well as us, to do better.
My Lords, I have greatly enjoyed this debate and am grateful to the right reverend Prelate. I would not dream of calling him by his nickname, although I can say that he is not the only one—after a debate on algorithms, my daughter was pleased to tell me that I was called “Lord of the Nerds” on social media—but I am grateful to him.
In our view, the Church of England’s social media guidelines are a commendable example of the steps individual institutions can take to help support online users to have more positive conversations. That also applies to the users themselves. We welcome the guidelines. As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford said, the expectations they imply encourage us to be the best we can. We all know that the digital world plays an ever-increasing role in all aspects of life. We agree with the Church of England that it is important that people apply the same common sense, kindness and sound judgment when they are online that they would use in face-to-face encounters. These precepts are not unhelpful in face-to-face encounters anyway.
The transformation of our lives to the online world also comes with risks. We have seen countless stories about the impact the internet is having on our politics, institutions and individual users. It is clear that something needs to change. That is why the Government are taking action to help shape an internet that is open and vibrant and encourages innovation but, importantly, also protects its users from harm. The Government believe the Church of England’s social media guidelines are well aligned with the plans we recently outlined in our online harms White Paper. I thank the right reverend Prelate and other noble Lords for welcoming it and the contributions they made to the consultation. It also aligns well with the 10 principles of the House of Lords Communications Committee, which were mentioned by my noble friend Lady Chisholm.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford asked about the digital authority. I commented on that at the end of my speech in the debate on that report. The Government will address that in our response to the consultation that has just ended. There were 2,000 replies, which we are going through at the moment. However, I made the slight warning that we are also conscious of the need for urgent action. Changing the whole regulatory landscape may be a step too far at this time, but we are considering it. That is illustrated by how, instead of a digital authority, the noble Baroness, Lady Grender, recommends Ofcom. There are issues to consider, but we agree that the overall regulatory landscape will have to be looked at in due course. We will come back to that.
Many noble Lords will be familiar with the White Paper, which sets out our plans to make the UK the safest place in the world to go online. In answer to the children who came to see the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, we will establish a new duty of care on companies for their users, overseen by an independent regulator, so they will no longer be able to say that they do not have responsibility for their actions. The regulator will have the power to take effective action against companies that breach their regulatory requirements. Expectations of companies will be outlined in codes of practice from the regulator.
Between April and July, there was a public consultation on the White Paper proposals. In addition to the responses that I mentioned, we conducted over 100 meetings with stakeholders and international partners. We will use all these contributions to inform our work on online safety. We intend to publish our response to the White Paper consultation by the end of the year and to introduce legislation as soon as possible thereafter.
However, we are conscious of doing what we can sooner, so we are also taking action now, which the noble Lord, Lord McNally, mentioned. In addition to the social media code of practice published alongside the White Paper, the Secretary of State recently announced that the Government will produce a draft code of practice on child online safety. We are also developing guidance about the use of technology to ensure that children are protected from inappropriate content online. These will both be published before the regulatory framework is in place.
The Church of England community guidelines set out the importance of behaving with kindness and respect. We agree that users, as well as tech companies, have a role in creating a positive online environment. The Government are developing an online media literacy strategy to ensure a co-ordinated approach to online media literacy education and awareness for children, young people and adults, but users must also be held to account when their behaviour falls short of the standards we would expect offline. It is, therefore, essential that our legal framework is fit for purpose in an increasingly online world. The Government have asked the Law Commission to complete a second phase of its review of abusive and offensive communications online. The commission will make recommendations about options for legal reform of current communications offences. The project is expected to report in the early part of 2021.
Truthfulness is another of the central principles of the Church of England’s community guidelines. The Government recognise the risks of disinformation and are committed to reducing the potential impact in the UK. The White Paper includes provisions for protecting the public from online disinformation. We will expect platforms to take proportionate and proactive measures to help their users understand the nature and reliability of information they find online. Platforms should take steps to minimise the likelihood of misleading and harmful disinformation going viral and increase the accessibility of trustworthy and varied news content. These measures focus on protecting users from harm by ensuring that there are good processes in place; it is not about judging what is true or not but having sensible precautions which make it harder for disinformation to spread.
The noble Baroness, Lady Grender, asked two questions. In answer to the first, I will develop what I said about action now. We do understand that, to protect children, we need to get on with it. I mentioned the social media code of practice, which sets out principles that companies should follow to tackle online bullying. We have also funded the UK Safer Internet Centre to develop cyberbullying guidance. That provides, via an online safety toolkit, advice for schools on understanding, preventing and responding to cyberbullying. Digital literacy is already taught but, to support young people further, we have been working closely with the Department for Education on the relationships and sex education guidance. That covers how to develop positive, respectful relationships, how to recognise risks, harmful content and contact and how to report them. Positive, respectful relationships relate absolutely to the Church of England guidelines that we are talking about today.
I mentioned the new online media strategy, the online safety guidance and guidance on how to use technology to keep children safe. We know that there is more to do. We are doing quite a lot now but are committed to developing these important aspects. For example, the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, talked about terms and conditions. We will now expect online companies to develop age-appropriate terms and conditions that people can understand, and a complaints procedure that will work quickly. Ultimately, these will be enforced by significant penalties, on which we are consulting.
The second question was about the 13 to 16 year-olds who are left behind by the GDPR. We applied a derogation in the Bill, but I will check the exact details and write to the noble Baroness.
I again thank the right reverend Prelate and the Church of England for their community guidelines and digital charter and emphasise how aligned we are on some of the fundamental issues. We will continue to engage with the Church of England as this work progresses. I am grateful to all noble Lords for their thoughtful contributions. This is an opportunity to lead the way and work with others globally. Through this work we will protect citizens, increase public trust in new technologies and create the best possible basis on which the digital economy and society can thrive.