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Digital Platforms: Impact on Democracy

Volume 804: debated on Thursday 16 July 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the impact of digital platforms on the functioning of democracy.

Digital platforms can play a positive role in public debate, helping to connect people and hold our political figures to account. The Government welcome the steps that some of the major social media companies have taken to help users make more informed decisions, including increasing transparency and working with independent fact-checkers. However, clearly they need to do more, and we continue to work with them to develop solutions that promote our democratic values.

Perhaps I may note on behalf of the department how much we welcome the report from the Lords Democracy and Digital Technologies Committee. I thank, in particular, the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, for having chaired it and my noble friend for being part of it. I thank all who contributed.

My Lords, does my noble friend the Minister agree that platforms must be made responsible for the content they push, promote and amplify? It should be a case of “We support freedom of speech; there is no right to freedom of reach.” Will she give the House a hint as to when the online harms Bill will appear, and will she assure the House that none of the provisions in the Bill will be unwittingly traded away in any upcoming trade deals?

In relation to my noble friend’s first point, we have been very clear that the framework we will use for the upcoming legislation will be that social media platforms have a duty of care to those using them and that there should be an element of proportionality in that; that is, the higher the harm, the greater the duty. In terms of the legislation’s timing, we will respond formally to the consultation in the next few months and legislation will follow that.

My Lords, I declare an interest in that certain funds across the Church of England and the Anglican Communion hold shares in social media companies, and vast numbers of churches and Anglicans, including me, use platforms for the promotion of the Church’s work. The Minister will be aware that, although social media has immense power for good, some social media platforms are used to incite hatred, stirring up social disruption and even extreme violence in some parts of the world, as I have recently heard from bishops in the DRC. What steps are Her Majesty’s Government looking at to motivate and encourage responsibility to be taken by such platforms to prevent their use in everything from hate speech to genocide?

The most reverend Primate captures the essence of both the potential benefits and the potential risks of social media platforms—a problem that arises particularly in countries where they represent almost the exclusive source of news. We will set out in great detail what we will do in relation to all those elements in our response to the consultation and then in the upcoming legislation. However, we anticipate that the international aspects will require intensive international collaboration to be effective.

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Holmes, on raising this issue. For me, the issue is still open and the jury is out, and we shall see how these things develop. I suggest that noble Lords should emulate the Conservative Party in 1945, which accepted the result of the election, which brought in a reformist Government. They should realise that the recent election that we have had has the potential to change the state of our democracy and should be treated with more respect than some noble Lords have given it over recent weeks.

The United Kingdom is home to ground-breaking domestic legislation—such as the recently passed age-appropriate design code and the upcoming online harms Bill—that seeks to protect children online. However, the protections that these measures offer are at risk from an aggressive lobbying effort that is leveraging the US-UK trade negotiations and might undermine our domestic regulation. In doing so, it is undermining promises made to an electorate who have voted repeatedly for a Government who have promised to protect children online. This is in a context where today, right across the BBC, we see programming highlighting the risks to children online, including a 50% rise in child sexual abuse material during Covid. What steps is the DCMS taking to ensure that UK children are protected in the US-UK trade talks, and will the Minister be willing to liaise with the Secretary of State for Trade so that I and other concerned parliamentarians can put the case clearly for a carve-out in the trade deal to protect UK children from online harms?

My Lords, protecting children online is perhaps the greatest priority in our online harms legislation. Obviously, we are working very hard to understand the interaction between our trade policy and our online harms policy in future trade agreements, but we stand by our online harms commitment and nothing in the US trade deal will affect that. I am more than happy to do my best to liaise with colleagues in the Department for International Trade, as the noble Baroness suggests.

My Lords, I recognise what the Minister said earlier about the duty of care but will she now rule out placing explicit obligations on social media companies to police advertisements with political content on their platforms? To save time, a simple “yes” or “no” would be sufficient as an answer.

I cannot give a simple “yes” or “no” at this time; all these things will be considered in detail, as I have mentioned already.

My Lords, the Select Committee chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, rightly says:

“The digital and social media landscape is dominated by two behemoths—Facebook and Google … Platforms’ decisions about what content they remove or stop promoting through their algorithms set the de facto limits of free expression online”—

a concern expressed by Facebook’s own recent audit. The Minister will be aware of the boycott of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram by leading companies over their approach to hate speech and fake news. Will she now ensure that all government departments join that boycott?

I would hope that government departments are putting nothing on Facebook or any other platform other than helpful and accurate information, so I cannot give the noble Lord that guarantee.

My Lords, my question may be more for Parliament than for Ministers, but does my noble friend the Minister nevertheless agree that, with a highly informed, although also often sadly misinformed, and digitally connected electorate, Parliament itself badly needs to strengthen its committees, where there can be proper and sustained inquisition in the face of a hugely expanded and much more intrusive Executive, and where the increasingly visible dangers of growing presidential, technocratic and much too centralised government—none of which sit easily with genuine democracy—can be effectively scrutinised and curbed?

I cannot comment more widely on committees but, judging by the report produced by your Lordships’ committee in this area, it has been an exemplar of rigour.

My Lords, I join others in congratulating my noble friend Lord Puttnam and his committee on their excellent report. As it says in paragraph 294, the Government already have the powers to introduce a requirement to include digital imprints on online political adverts. They have already consulted and committed to action in 2019; indeed, this is already the law in Scotland and it can be done by secondary legislation. The case is overwhelming. Will the Minister explain when we can expect this legislation?

My Lords, the time allowed for this Question has now elapsed. I apologise to the three noble Lords who were not able to ask their supplementary questions.