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Online Harms Legislation

Volume 801: debated on Thursday 13 February 2020


My Lords, with permission, I would like to repeat a response to an Urgent Question. The response was made earlier today by my honourable friend the Minister for Digital and Broadband in the other place on the Government’s response to the consultation on online harms. The response is as follows.

“This Government are taking significant action to tackle the issue of harm taking place online. There is widespread consensus that online platforms must do more to make sure their services are safe for all users, particularly children, while also promoting freedom of expression online. Strikingly, far fewer parents now believe that the benefits of their child being online outweigh the risks, falling from 65% of parents in 2015 to 55% last year. This is a worrying trend that we must address. We can keep the benefits of the digital economy only if we can improve trust and confidence in technology and tackle what erodes it.

The online harms White Paper published last April proposed a statutory duty of care enforced by an independent regulator. Since its publication, we have consulted on our proposals and announced our intention to legislate in the Queen’s Speech. The evidence given during the consultation will help us get the balance right between an open and vibrant internet and one where users are protected from harm. Yesterday, as set out in a Written Ministerial Statement, the Government published our initial consultation response on GOV.UK. The response set out our proposed direction of travel following the consultation process. We will publish a full response in the spring before bringing forward legislation.

There are four specific points raised during the consultation that I would like to bring to the attention of the House. First, we must ensure that in aiming to make the internet safer we do not inadvertently stifle legitimate debate. We will place safeguards in legislation, giving companies and the regulator the responsibility to protect users’ rights online, including to freedom of expression. We will also introduce greater transparency about content removal so that users can appeal if their content is taken down.

Secondly, we know that greater protections are needed to keep young people safe online. The new regulatory framework will require companies to take steps to prevent children from accessing age-inappropriate content and to protect them from other harms.

Thirdly, some consultation responses raised concerns that the regulation would place undue burdens on sites where opportunities for harm to occur are limited. Our legislation will be proportionate and risk-based, affecting only those companies where there is risk of harm. The duty of care will apply only to businesses facilitating the sharing of user-generated content—for example, through comments or video sharing. Only around 5% of UK businesses provide such functions.

Fourthly, the regulator will ensure that in-scope companies have appropriate systems and processes in place to protect users from harm, especially children and the most vulnerable.

We are minded to appoint Ofcom to regulate online harms, building on its experience and expertise to make further progress on this important issue. We also yesterday appointed Ofcom to regulate video-sharing platforms under the audio-visual media service directive, which aims to reduce harmful content on these sites. This will provide quicker protections for some harms and activities and will act as a stepping stone to the full online harms regulatory framework.

We will publish a full consultation response in the spring, setting out further details of our plans ahead of legislation. Alongside this, the Home Office will publish voluntary interim codes of practice to set out what companies should do to prevent terrorist use of the internet or child sexual exploitation and abuse on their platforms. We are confident that this publication, and the other plans we are driving forward, will help to make Britain the safest place to be online and the best digital economy in the world.”

My Lords, I am grateful to hear that repeat of the reply in the other place. We have been building a narrative around these questions since April last year, when the online harms White Paper was published. Many of the themes adumbrated there continue to be repeated because we can now see clearly where the main focus of action will take place.

I have a couple of questions. The first is about the regulatory framework and regulation in general. The balance between freedom and constraint will always be what we debate as the actual measures come before us. We hear on the news this morning that the technology companies will be fighting hard to keep their corner. We have decided to come out of the European Union but the EU is framing its own regulatory responses to this same question, so my first question is: at this critical time, are we in touch with others who are forming responses to these questions so that, as far as humanly possible, we can have across-the-board harmony between those seeking the safeguards we are talking about?

My second question concerns the suggestion that we might give this responsibility for oversight to Ofcom. Of course, it comes with its own plaudits and track record—nobody has any doubt about that—but it continues to accrue to itself more and more areas of responsibility. I must say that in the preliminary discussions I have been party to, I heard more than once the suggestion that using another regulator—perhaps one doing an apprenticeship with Ofcom—might be a more appropriate way forward, with an eventual separation of bodies, as it were. We would not want, through this accumulation of responsibility, to diminish Ofcom’s capacity and insight. Can we expect any gratification from our anxieties in this area?

I thank the noble Lord for his questions. On what is happening in this area internationally, including in the EU, we are watching and liaising closely with other countries. This is a global issue by its very nature. We do not want that liaison to hold us up—we are keen to make progress as quickly as possible—but we are co-ordinating.

No final decision has been taken on Ofcom, although the former Secretary of State was clear when she said that she was “minded to appoint Ofcom” as the regulator. There is now a programme of work to look at how this would work in practice. We will be able to confirm more on that later in the spring, but there is a clear commitment to make sure that the resources are available to make this work well.

My Lords, I understand that when my noble friend Lord Clement-Jones raised this matter during Questions, there was harrumphing from the Neanderthals on the Minister’s Back Benches about such impudence. It is worth reminding ourselves that this is not a gentlemen’s club; it is a House of Parliament where government is held to account. I therefore welcome the Government’s quick response in supplying this Statement.

I welcome the responsibilities being given to Ofcom. What worries me is that in three or six months’ time, the Minister will be at the Dispatch Box saying, “Unfortunately, Ofcom has not been able to do the preparatory work needed”, because it has neither the funds nor the mandate under present legislation. That is why I urge her again to consider adopting my paving Bill, which was drafted in co-operation with the Carnegie Trust and which any Government might have brought forward anyway. It gives a chance for action this day on the preparations needed, which Ofcom could get on with.

There is also the matter of the Minister referring this morning to a Cabinet Office committee looking at some of the issues covered by the committee of the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, concerning damages to democracy. Who does that committee report to? Is a Minister responsible for its work? When we will have a report on its work?

Also, there was pressure in the Commons this morning for pre-legislative scrutiny. That would waste time but I urge the Minister to consider giving both the DCMS Committee and the Communications Committee in this House the job of taking the first look at Ofcom’s work.

Finally, I want to put on record that last night, the Minister, Matt Warman—it is no use the Whip glaring at me, I have not taken as long as the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths. I will not be bullied by the Whip; she should go out if she does not want to listen to me. Last night, Matt Warman spoke at a round table and was brilliant. I hope that praise from my quarter does not damage his future political career. Perhaps I can avoid that by putting on record that I think Dominic Cummings is doing a wonderful job.

I thank the noble Lord for his kind comments about my honourable friend. As he knows, we share many of the same objectives. I know that officials in the department have found liaising with the noble Lord very helpful; I hope that work can continue.

On the Cabinet Office committee, the Government set up the Defending Democracy programme to pull together existing work and expertise from a number of departments. It is led by the Cabinet Office. I will write to the noble Lord with more detail on that.

My Lords, I also thank the Minister for updating us. I declare my interest as chair of the National Mental Capacity Forum.

I want to put on record my concerns about the initial consultation response, which talks of protecting users’ rights online, harmful activity and a company breaching its duty of care. We must make sure that we are aware that “age-inappropriate” does not go with only chronological age. Many people cannot cope with things that younger people can, although their age on paper is older, because of developmental delay or whatever.

We must also be aware that people become vulnerable to health harms, quite apart from the obvious horror of child pornography. That includes aggravating sites that encourage suicide, eating disorders and mental illness generally. There are also sites that hook people into debt. Even shopping sites do it; it is not just gambling sites. For example, if you purchase something on Amazon, you may find that have inadvertently contracted with Amazon Prime. Undoing that contract is not simple. If you live independently and are supported as the second principle of the Mental Capacity Act requires, but you do not have the cognitive skills to find your way to undoing that contract, you can find yourself locked into paying a lot of money and inadvertently getting into debt. All the good that is being done for independent living can rapidly be undone.

The noble Baroness puts her finger on an important point. The task of defining vulnerability will be a key element in our work between now and the spring. Forgive me if my answer is brief but it is a complex and important area.

My Lords, have Her Majesty’s Government taken into account what other countries are doing to tackle online harms?

We are liaising on developments in the EU and globally but, as I said to the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths, we will not let that slow us down.

My Lords, will the Minister also look at my Private Member’s Bill on children’s well-being and online harms?

I can make no promises as there is apparently a reshuffle this afternoon, but I will endeavour to look at it whatever the outcome.