Motion to Take Note
My Lords, to tell your Lordships the truth, I feel like an imposter. This report was shaped, inspired and given its passion by Lord Puttnam, the chairman of the committee, who I am delighted to see sitting on the steps of the Throne. I was merely one of the team of Peers who he charmed, argued and occasionally cajoled into unanimously endorsing his vision: trust in democracy resurrected by getting social media back on the leash. David’s high seriousness was of course combined with his impish sense of humour. He egged on his team—noble Lords and an incomparable secretariat led by Olivia Crabtree and Tim Stacey—to produce an irresistible report. We have lost him, and that fact highlights the extraordinary situation that it has taken nearly two years, or at least more than 18 months, from the time we produced our report to its being debated in this House—honestly.
However, Lord Puttnam and we should take comfort from the fact that the seeds we sowed have multiplied. To cite some: the Joint Committee on the Draft Online Safety Bill flowed directly from our work, and its report—unlike so many parliamentary reports—is being taken seriously by the Government. That is a continuing debate, but I predict it will have a much more satisfactory outcome than it would have done if our report had never existed. We had an impact on this House’s Communications and Digital Committee report of July 2021. That committee also produced a persuasive report on digital regulation, which makes real some of the Puttnam committee’s recommendations. The House of Commons Petitions Committee produced its valuable report on Tackling Online Abuse, which again picked up some of our themes.
Things that Puttnam said at the time which then seemed controversial now seem commonplace. As David said in his foreword,
“our Report focuses on a different form of crisis, one with roots that extend far deeper, and are likely to last far longer than COVID-19. This is a virus that affects all of us in the UK—a pandemic of ‘misinformation’ and ‘disinformation’. If allowed to flourish these counterfeit truths will result in the collapse of public trust, and without trust democracy as we know it will simply decline into irrelevance.”
Let me dip briefly into the nourishing pot of proposals that Puttnam put forward. Among them are: a CMA full investigation into online platforms’ control over digital advertising—there was a giant step that way in the CMA’s announcement yesterday. There is also holding platforms to account for content they recommend to large audiences, coupled with Ofcom sanctions against platforms that fail to adhere to their duty of care; better co-ordination of regulators; transparency, especially transparency over the genie in the box, algorithms; using technology to engage people for democratic purposes; a large-scale programme of evaluation of digital media literacy initiatives, perhaps focusing, as the committee did, on the extraordinary efforts made by Estonia as part of its efforts to keep Russian misinformation at bay—we know now that not a moment of that has been wasted; and a major review of the implications of platform design for users, producing a code of practice on design transparency. I will not go on, because all noble Lords will have read the report or, if they have not, they will have read the excellent Library briefing, but a cornucopia of goodies is hidden within the report.
Not all our proposals were addressed to the Government. One, for example, was addressed to Parliament, recommending it set up a Joint Committee on online safety. As I have said, that happened—to remarkable effect. The CMA and Ofcom also both reacted and have been pushing ahead.
What of those recommendations addressed to the Government? Perhaps one should not expect the Government’s response to the report, which they published in—gulp—September 2020, to match the positive tone of our report. We know you do not get many positive tones in government responses. There are a few areas where progress is being made: imprints on digital political advertising, for example, and, at long last, the beginning of a joined-up approach in government to digital literacy. However, overall, there is something rather depressing about the response. Our committee had high ambitions. The Government have low ambitions—tarnished, moreover, by putting the partisan before the health of the polity in the Elections Bill that we debated only yesterday.
By serendipity, we were discussing electoral law in the previous debate. We were not the only people advocating reform: the Law Commission has a set of proposals. Yet the Government chose to prioritise this partisan Elections Bill—a shocking aberration—over making the change the Law Commission wanted.
We wanted proper declarations of spending by everyone in elections, not just political parties. The Government says that we must take care not to “overburden campaigners”. We proposed more powers for the Electoral Commission. The Elections Bill which the House debated emasculates the commission. We asked for a Bill based on the Law Commission’s recommendations, and we wanted it in place before the next general election. There is no sign of it yet; it remains in the long grass. The Government need to get their priorities straight where electoral law is concerned if they are to retain the confidence of voters. We were an all-party committee recommending changes to sustain democracy. I fear that, too often, they seem a partisan Government, recommending changes to bend democracy their way.
These debates are not over: far from it. Much of what we raised is being taken forward, as I said —at least in debate if not always in legislative action. I must also say that the tone of debate has improved radically. Nobody now defends the exploitation of children by pornographers—as the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, has frequently pointed out. The Government are actually doing something about it by announcing measures to ensure that age verification is taken seriously. Having said some harsh things about the Government, I cannot tell your Lordships how thrilled I—and, I am sure, the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron—was to find that they were taking some action there. I expect that, like me, she will not be totally satisfied. It is also important that the big tech companies themselves are finally starting to take their critics seriously—that is what a febrile share price does under capitalism—and they are now making not just public affairs but genuine efforts to start to get their act together.
I look forward to the debate and to the Minister’s reply. I have been long enough—may be too long—in politics to have learned how often the short term trumps the long term, how a few votes snatched today can seem more attractive than a healthier democracy tomorrow. In this report, we tried to create a counterweight: an appeal, if you like, to idealism to defeat a widespread and corrosive cynicism. Even today, what we said is a cry worth listening to for those who still believe in progress and democracy, and all of us believe in those two things more strongly as a result of the horrifying events in Ukraine. The report is Lord Puttnam’s legacy and let us hope that it will be his words that shape our future.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, and I can assure him that he is no impostor. It is a great pleasure to sit on the Communications and Digital Select Committee with him. Without wishing to have a Spartacus moment, let me say that I am the impostor because not only am I not Lord Puttnam, but I did not even sit on the committee whose report we are debating today. While it was a joy for me to join this House, it was a matter of deep regret that shortly after I joined Lord Puttnam decided immediately to resign from the House, so this is my one chance to work with him, albeit semi-virtually.
I have to say that I have no idea why he resigned as I bumped into him in a bar last night at 10 pm and we gave each other a big hug, but it is a genuine source of regret to me because he was a great mentor to me when I was in the other place working on all the issues that he cares so deeply about and which he spent 20 years or more in this House influencing a great deal. Indeed, in my second interview to be chairman of Ofcom, I though fondly of Lord Puttnam this week and his influence on the Communications Act, which brought Ofcom into being. If my noble friend the Minister wants to update the House on how I did in the interview, I will look forward to his informative insights.
I should declare two important interests as set out in the register as they are very relevant to the remarks I want to make. One is that I am on the advisory board of NewsGuard, which also includes luminaries such Jimmy Wales, which rates the veracity of new websites, based on nutrition labels, and I also chair the UK branch of Common Sense Media, a US charity that campaigns for kids’ rights on the internet and looks up to the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, and 5Rights for inspiration.
I have to say that this report, albeit that we are debating it some 18 months after it was first published, remains as relevant today as it was then, particularly in the light of the horrific events we are seeing in Ukraine. It has never been more important to be able to address the misinformation and disinformation on the internet, particularly propagated according to the platforms. The report makes many sensible recommendations on how to combat that.
There is no doubt that this kind of information on the internet influences people’s responses to news and events. If fact, a report published by Axios today shows that people’s trust in vaccines is very much influenced by the sources from which they get their news, and that people who do not rely on trusted news sources have much less trust in vaccines.
The report addresses the risks placed on our democracy and our electoral process. It is important for us to remember that it is not just the US. There were attempts to influence the German elections, and we can expect that attempts will be made to influence our rather more modest local elections in May—again, particularly given the global circumstances. Those attempts are made through the platforms, through disinformation and deliberate misinformation.
So it is quite right that the report calls for a code on political advertising. Political advertising online has been left in a vacuum, as it were, and indeed the limits on spending by political parties do not take account of the ability to propagate information online. It is also right that the report calls on us to bolster sources of local news. The Communications and Digital Committee recently published a report that called on Google, the BBC, Facebook and others to pool all the money that they give to local news sources as a way of showing their virtuosity, in order to provide a real pool of money—a bit like the Content Fund, which was so successful but is sadly now being discontinued—to provide financial support for genuine news.
Referring to my work with Common Sense Media, I also thoroughly endorse the report’s call for digital citizenship. The report calls for lifelong learning for digital citizenship, and it is vital that our young people in schools get a proper digital citizenship curriculum. They are growing up in a digital age; they are savvy and they know their way around it. Nevertheless, if the Government backed this much more vigorously, that would make it quite clear how important it is that our children are given the tools to navigate the internet and the information that they are bombarded with.
I conclude, as the numbers flash, by once again recording—because I have not given any speech in this House since I have been here without doing so—my unequivocal support for the BBC. I mentioned Ukraine in my opening remarks. There are many issues to do with Ukraine, but one of them is how important it is for people in this country, and indeed in Ukraine and the world, to have a trusted news source such as the BBC.
My Lords, I am not Lord Puttnam either, but I join my noble friend Lord Lipsey and the noble Lord, Lord Vaizey, in paying tribute to him. I do not think he designed the report as being his last one in this House, but he could not have had a more perfect one for him, since it embraces all the years that he has spent in communications, his commitment to democracy and his understanding of the power of education. We have benefited from his ability to be optimistic about the possibilities while warning about the risks, and to always try to come out on the right side of that balance. I am pleased to say that I too think that this report reflects a lot of his skills, and I was grateful to have the opportunity to serve on the committee with my very good friend.
About a quarter of a century ago I was very optimistic about the effect of digital technology on democracy. Although the report looks at the risks, it is important to say that that technology has offered many things that are good, and we ought to treasure those and make the most of them. But we have been too slow to see the risks. Think about what has happened since the committee was set up: events at the Capitol, the coronavirus, Ukraine and overseas interference in elections. And what have we done in those two years? Precious little, except set up even more committees. That is our challenge: our inability to work as speedily as we need to in taking the action we need to take in order to protect democracy.
There are two themes running throughout the report. The first is the idea that democracy requires that those who hold power must be accountable for that power, and that includes technology and the platforms. The second is that we have to empower citizens to be informed, critical users of information—and it is that which I shall concentrate my remarks on.
Quite simply, what has happened with technology in the past two decades is that we have developed a new way of doing politics and a different way of communicating and campaigning. But we have not given our population the skills and the means to navigate their way through it. Too many citizens do not have the skills to really get on top of this process and be the active citizens that we would want them to be. Even more worryingly, our education system is not preparing the next generation so that they will have the skills.
David said in his foreword to the report:
“In the digital world, our belief in what we see, hear and read is being distorted to the point at which we no longer know who or what to trust.”
I do not think anybody here would say that that is not the case; in preparing our children to be active, confident and digitally literate citizens, our education system has got to take account of that world. It is not like it was when I was a child, or a teacher; it is not old-fashioned civics, or learning about the electoral system or where to put the “X”. Quite simply, there was not one witness in this report who thought that what we were doing in our schools was fit for purpose and would do the job of preparing our children to be active citizens in the digital arena.
More worrying than that is the evidence that was given by Ministers and civil servants. I have never been as frustrated about how far from reality they seem to be as I was on this issue. They told us that what they had done to prepare our children was bring in computing classes—one element of PSHE and citizenship that in any case is only one lesson a week if you are lucky. That is simply not enough. The worrying thing is that we do not have a department that understands the nature of the challenge, let alone has the ambition to meet that challenge.
I know that, since then, we have had the online media strategy published by DCMS, and that has in it some more promising work; it recognises the work that many of the charities and indeed the digital platforms are doing. But in the end, all it has done is transport the inadequacies of the DfE into its own report. If cross-departmental working is going to bring value added, you cannot just transport a pretty miserable set of activities from one department into what could have been a half-decent report in another department. I would ask the Minister to look at that again.
There is hope, however. From what I know of the department, when DfE takes seriously something such as literacy or numeracy, and works hard at it, it scours the world for best practice. We have all heard about how the Chinese teach maths and how the Australians teach literacy. Where has the energy gone into finding who does digital skills well? It is there. We received evidence from Estonia and Finland. We heard about Latvia, Denmark and Sweden. We are not world-beating in preparing our children to be confident citizens in the digital world. We are not even on the first rung. This is serious—as serious as if we were bringing up a generation of children who could not read or write. I would like to see a bit more ambition in government to make that right. I do see that ambition in our report, and I very much hope that its impact will be felt in the years to come.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to take part in this debate, as it was to be a member of your Lordships’ committee alongside colleagues who are speaking this afternoon. I declare my interest as a non-executive director of Channel 4 television. I am indebted to the staff of the committee, not least Olivia Crabtree, who clerked it so magnificently. I am indebted also to the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, not only for the way that he introduced this debate but for doing me a tremendous service by informing me that Lord Puttnam is on the steps of the Throne today. I was going to say that I was sure he would be watching avidly on screen from Skibbereen. I am very grateful.
What we discovered when we published our report was pertinent at the time; it is even more pertinent with a capital P today. We live not just in an era of great difficulties and uncertainties but, in this specific space, of extraordinary contradictions. We have never been more connected and yet, even pre-pandemic, isolation has never been at such a level. We have never been more connected and yet mental well-being has never been at such crisis levels. We need to understand what digital technologies are. In simple terms, they are just the latest tools—yes, extraordinarily powerful, but the latest tools in our human hands. It is up to us.
The fact that so many platforms are more extractive today than open-cast mining is not a factor of those tools per se. It is how they have been programmed—how they have been deployed and led by the humans who have determined that the way to maximise profit and dwell time, and thus add revenue, is to have those algorithms work in that manner. However, there is nothing whatever inevitable about that. They are tools in our human hands. We have just as much potential to drive public good and public benefit, with collaboration through that connection, as to have the isolation and mental well-being crisis that we currently suffer.
These tools give us the opportunity to reach much further than at any other time in human society and drive that public debate. What kind of society or economy—what kind of cities, communities, country and globe—do we want to be living, working and playing in? All these tools could play such a role and it is pertinent not only to have this debate today but to have it connected to the Elections Bill that is going through your Lordships’ House. For example, if we had the electoral roll based on a digital ledger technologies platform, that would drive away in an instant so many of the difficulties that we have with the current system.
For people like myself—the blind and visually impaired—and other disabled people going to cast their vote, digital technologies, accessibly and inclusively deployed, could make such a difference. They could enable that vote to be made independently and, crucially, in secret. As we are celebrating 150 years of the Ballot Act, that would seem to be a pretty good thing to strike at if we want to call ourselves a liberal democracy.
The potential is there but it is far from realised right now. We had a phenomenal committee chair in Lord Puttnam. His guiding hand and wise head, with us then and today, proved that he is far more than a local hero. This is not just an opportunity. If we all strive to drive collective action, not only can we use digital technologies for better outcomes and an improved, more engaging democracy, but we can fundamentally rewrite the social contract between citizen and state for the benefit and betterment of both. That is the mission; let us all stick to it.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Holmes. I listened to his plea about the Elections Bill and how we should take those issues seriously, particularly for blind and partially sighted people, where the Bill in fact worsens their condition and seems to do so deliberately.
I am grateful, of course, to my noble friend Lord Lipsey for introducing this debate but, as he and every speaker have acknowledged, we owe an enormous debt of gratitude to Lord Puttnam, who is watching us from the steps of the Throne. His work in chairing and steering the Select Committee throughout all that we did was exemplary. Our clerking team was magnificent, but he admitted that he had sent them more than 2,000 emails during the course of the inquiry, which gives us some indication of his diligence and theirs in supporting us in that work.
I believe that the report, Digital Technology and the Resurrection of Trust, is a huge and important contribution to debate and discussion about the future of our democracy. Its main recommendations require far more attention than the Government’s rather complacent response would suggest. I want to focus on one narrow area: misinformation and disinformation. Who drives it and who benefits?
In evidence to the committee, the noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill of Bengarve, distinguished between misinformation—telling you that the moon is made of blue cheese, and honestly believing it—and disinformation, which is knowing full well that the moon is not made of blue cheese but still spreading that as a fact. The committee received clear evidence that the levels of misinformation and disinformation being disseminated, particularly about politics, reduces trust in politicians and public faith in democracy. The pandemic saw a huge rise in levels of misinformation and disinformation: those who do not believe that Covid exists; those who connect it to 5G; or those who believe that vaccines are an attempt by Bill Gates to implant brain-control devices through our arms.
So why does misinformation and disinformation spread? The committee received abundant evidence that the very design of the social media platforms facilitates that spread. The algorithms are designed to maximise the time that people spend on the individual platforms. If you appear to take an interest or to like one type of content, you are served more and more of the same. It may be natural to be curious about so-called conspiracy theories initially, but then you see more and more of the same. The initial nonsense gets apparent reinforcement, so you think that perhaps it must have had some truth—and so it goes on.
The other factor is the deliberate amplification of particular disinformation messages. Sometimes this is because the adherents of a particular viewpoint are more engaged in organising, liking and forwarding such messages, but it is not just about like-minded individuals acting together. Messages can be targeted at particular demographics with a view to influencing or reinforcing political opinions. This was the whole basis of the offer made by Cambridge Analytica: if individuals are already predisposed to voting in a particular way, receiving a barrage of messages may make such a vote more likely. Is that legitimate campaigning? Not if the basis is misinformation that should have been corrected, or if it is wilful disinformation. It can be mechanised, moreover, with armies of bots to spread the message.
Who gains from this and how does it affect our democracy? The objective may be to produce a particular result or it may be designed to undermine faith in the system—in democracy itself. In a hotly contested election or referendum, an anti-democratic overseas power—let us not mince words: Russia—may or may not be keen to see one outcome or another, but it has unequivocally succeeded if, at the end of the process, one side or another believes that the rightful result was stolen and the idea gains hold that democratic processes do not work. That is the process that led to the attack on Capitol Hill in January last year.
How do we combat this? First, the origin of material placed on social media must be clear. Secondly, we should place greater obligations on social media platforms to limit the spread of disinformation. Thirdly, we should encourage the effective countering of that disinformation and misinformation and support the organisations, such as Full Fact, that do that. Fourthly—this was mentioned by several noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Vaizey, and my noble friend Lady Morris—we should equip citizens, particularly the next generation of citizens, with the skills to be discerning receivers of information and the critical thinking skills to question the origin of dubious assertions.
These were the themes addressed in the committee’s report and they are even more urgent now than they were when we produced it. I just hope that the Minister will do better than the woefully inadequate government response when he closes the debate this afternoon.
My Lords, I was very lucky to have the chance to serve on Lord Puttnam’s committee. It was a most enlightening and enthralling experience and I stand by all the conclusions that we published in the report and look forward—my noble friends on the Front Bench may not agree with me—to advocating them, when we come to the Elections Bill and the online harms Bill, in various reports.
As the report says, it is up to us to protect democracy and to aim for a world run in the interests of us all. That requires us to be strong and active in advocating that. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, I started out being optimistic about what are now the tech giants, but I now just view them with disgust. It has been a real lesson in how not to be carried away but to look at things critically and to try to understand where the direction they are going might lead. But at least they need us. Without us, the current crop of tech companies would be nothing. What will the next lot—the ones based on robots that can do everything and produce everything—need us for?
It is really important that we have a strong democracy and that we keep control of these companies and those that come afterwards. None of the tech giants that we have at the moment are going to live that long. Where are MySpace and Friends Reunited now? Who now signs up for Facebook who has all their own teeth? These things are going to be replaced. It is our responsibility as a Government to create the conditions so that what comes after the companies we have at the moment is much better and really supports the ideas of trust, amity and power to the people. That is what I look to the Government for: to create the conditions. They could do a lot worse than choose a really strong and informed chair of Ofcom.
My Lords, the previous speakers in this debate have proven beyond doubt that this House should have had the chance to debate this excellent report long before now. For there to be a delay of nearly 18 months before such a debate on such a major report is insulting to those who gave evidence and does a disservice to the work of the clerks, the advisers and the distinguished members of the committee, including the chairman, whom we warmly welcome today and are glad to see observing the debate while also regretting that he is not able to participate. I am sure that he, too, would have had insights to offer to us.
As others have said, the events of the past 18 months have indeed moved things forward. Is there any real doubt now in our minds that Russia and other foreign Governments have used the internet to affect many recent electoral events in this country, including two general elections and the Brexit referendum? My noble friend Lady Morris reminded us about the Capitol riots. The way social media amplifies the false over the true, the extreme over the considered, and the harmful over the benign has a societal cost, and is a real and present harm to ensuring trust in our democracy. The growth in use of disinformation and misinformation is exponential and undermines the trust so vital to our democratic processes, as exemplified in the report.
But there are other things: data-driven political campaigning is growing. It is not limited to specific political advertising on social media and is therefore largely unregulated. We need greater transparency in how political campaigners obtain and use personal data, including what is called “data inferencing”.
I was a member of the excellent Joint Committee on the pre-legislative scrutiny of the online safety Bill, already referred to, and I am confident that when the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, and the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, speak, they will acknowledge, as I do, that much of our thinking on this issue was influenced by the arguments and findings of the excellent report that we are discussing today.
The report of our Joint Committee was unanimous, and we await the Government’s response to it. If it is adopted, the report proposes a sea change in the way we regulate social media companies. As my noble friend Lord Harris just said, their business model, based on data harvesting and microtargeted advertising, values engagement of users at all costs, regardless of what holds their attention. While the need to safeguard our children from being likely to access inappropriate material online has to be a priority, it is important to recognise that we are dealing with huge companies whose staggeringly large profits are made at the expense of key issues we must have regard to, such as social cohesion and democratic engagement.
My argument today is that leaving this area of activity unregulated will cause great harm and destroy trust in our democracy, and it must be legislated for. There is a way forward. If the recommendations of our Joint Committee are accepted, the revised online safety Bill will at last hold regulated online services fully responsible for the risks they create by their design and operation, including the algorithms. The key principle is that the laws governing our democracy and elections, like those affecting social intercourse, need to be upheld in the virtual world. If a platform carries, promotes or recommends material to its users which would be against our electoral laws, or recommends or endorses disinformation or misinformation in a way likely to influence elections, a regulator must have robust powers to act when regulated companies fail to do so.
The consequence of this approach is that we urgently need to look at the powers available to the Electoral Commission, as regulator, and ensure that they are fit for purpose in the virtual world. The Joint Committee did not have time to do that properly in the limited time allocated to us to review the draft Bill. At the very least, the Government should be using the current Elections Bill, or commit to future legislation, to ensure that the powers that will be made available to Ofcom shortly can be shared with the Electoral Commission and the ICO, and that there will be no barrier to joint action against firms, organisations or individuals threatening the integrity of our democratic processes. It is that important. Fines and sanctions need to be commensurate with those being made available to Ofcom and the ICO for other harms.
Finally, consideration must be given to ensuring that the Electoral Commission is admitted as a member of the statutory body which we hope will replace the informal DRF, and which we hope that Parliament will set up to co-ordinate regulatory action in the digital world. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
My Lords, I declare my interests as chair of 5Rights, a member of the Joint Committee and a member of the digital democracy inquiry. I too pay tribute to Lord Puttnam, our wonderful chairman. For the record, I give thanks for his many acts of kindness and the guidance he offered me as I started to grapple with the world of legislation and politics. He represents the best of this House.
In the life of tech, 20 months is a long time. In that time, we have seen Maria Ressa get a Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts to protect free speech, battling hostile state actors and identifying Facebook’s chilling effect on journalism and the broader information ecosystem. Her words reverberate as we witness the information conflict and resulting violence waging across the globe:
“I don’t think we have wrapped our heads around how much technology has allowed the manipulation of individuals and democracies.”
From Frances Haugen, we heard that Facebook ignored its own research showing Instagram made teens anxious and depressed. To Congress, she said:
“I am here today because I believe Facebook’s products harm children, stoke division, and weaken our democracy.”
Of course, we also had the horror of Covid misinformation, the attacks on black footballers, and a 77% increase in self-generated abuse—all fuelled by algorithms supercharged to spread at any cost and whatever the harm to people or society.
Facebook, feeling the heat, went for rebranding, rather than fixing the problem. It re-emerged as Meta with a toe-curling video of two grown men playing in the office and a $10 billion a year plan to make the metaverse our new home—setting off a goldrush in which even McDonald’s filed for trademarks for virtual restaurants. Within weeks, we saw headlines that read
“the metaverse—already a home to sex predators”,
“Metaverse app allows kids into virtual strip clubs.”
My own personal low point was reading about a New York Times journalist who arrived in the metaverse to find that another avatar immediately groped her and then ejaculated in her face. Her pleas to stop were unheard until her abuser, satisfied, walked jauntily away.
Before I continue, I will make two things abundantly clear. First, Meta is not the only tech company at fault. Indeed, it is, by some measure, not the worst. However, it epitomises the culture of a sector that fails to protect its users and spends a fortune on lobbying to make certain that none of the rest of us does. Secondly, the metaverse is not, in and of itself, a problem. My own brief forays include an extraordinary whodunit adventure with a film noir aesthetic, and a fantastic training environment for social workers that allow them to rehearse how to spot signs of abuse or neglect. None the less, Meta has done us an extraordinary favour in showing us that we cannot slice and dice the digital world. The time for picking battles or offering partial protections has passed, because the technology and its associated risk are interconnected and constantly evolving. Laws must be about principles and product safety, with a radical transparency and democratic accountability. In a connected world, the risk to the user is the weakest link.
Twenty months is a long time in the life of a child. I have stood here too many times telling the Minister and his multiple predecessors about the real-time costs to children’s bodies, mental health, life chances and, in tragic cases, lives. It is not too late to fast-track privacy-preserving age-assurance regulation. The daily harms experienced by children, while they wait, must surely be on the consciences of officials and Ministers. So too, the support desperately needed by bereaved parents—in their quest to get tech companies to hand over information which may save other children from a similar fate—cannot wait until 2025.
I believe the online safety Bill will be published on Tuesday, so I will not ask questions that cannot be answered here. But while every part of my being hopes that the Bill will reflect the recommendations of both the Democracy and Digital Technologies Committee and the Joint Committee to simplify, strengthen, future-proof and make enforceable the online safety regime, I fear that we will simply get a series of eye-catching additions to the draft Bill which will fail to make the systemic changes necessary.
Last night, I was speaking to a group of teenagers, one of whom said, “The digital world is our oyster, you should assume we are there until you can prove we are not.” Another simply said, “I don’t think it’s right that the tech companies can prey on us.” They know, we know and the Government know what this Bill must do. It is the job of this House and the other place to make sure that the online safety Bill is fit for the future and, in being so, reinstates the trust that Lord Puttnam so desperately wanted to see.
My Lords, it is a privilege and a pleasure to follow the authoritative words spoken by previous speakers; I am grateful to them. It is also an unexpected delight to see the leprechaun-like figure of Lord Puttnam sitting on the steps of the Throne and sense his spirit in the report that we are considering today.
For me, the unusual thing was that I read this report following the work that the successor committee, the Communications and Digital Committee, has been doing. It has produced its own reports on freedom of expression online and regulating the regulators, which have been published and which, I suppose, must await some nether date in some distant calendar before they will be looked at and considered on the Floor of this Chamber. Reading them that way round, I definitely got the sense that the reports we have been working on have been suffused with and taken further the questions and issues raised in this report. There is a kind of organic feel about them. All of that, of course, is feeding into the debate on the online safety Bill, about which we have both fears and hopes. We will have to see what happens before the balance between those attitudes of mind can be worked out. There is something going on.
Having paid tribute to all that, I confess that I was attracted to speak in this debate by the fact that the report is called Digital Technology and the Resurrection of Trust. I could have spent my five minutes talking about the resurrection, but thought that might not be the right thing to do—although if anybody would sign up for that, we will find a room and do it, as I keep saying. Instead, let us consider trust.
The report pays tribute to and weaves into its entire narrative the Nolan principles on standards in public life. I am a great believer that probity, as well as charity, begins at home. I find it very difficult looking at such things as integrity, honesty and openness at a time—a political moment—like this, when trust has been eroded by leadership in this country that leaves much to be desired in terms of integrity, honesty and openness. We lecture the world about how to make the world a better and safer place, as if objectively and beyond us we could throw our voices in the direction of the issues, without taking account that we who make the suggestions must examine ourselves and the integrity, honesty and openness that run through the political body to which we belong. It is a difficult thing.
I offer one example to take it away from the rather personal observations I have just made. I have not had occasion to stay up until 3.30 am, but I see some of the demands made on Members of this House. It is almost institutional bullying to keep them up until 3.30 am, at our age, debating matters that, for an extra parliamentary day, could have been done in a more civilised way. There is no point in shrugging it off or frowning about it. I have seen the result in some Members of this House as, day after day and week after week, they have struggled with the heavy legislative programme imposed on us.
I put my toe in the waters of the Nationality and Borders Bill and asked a simple question, to which I have not had an answer. There are two narratives in play in the Nationality and Borders Bill. One, from the UNHCR and all the legal establishment—the Law Society, the barristers, everybody—is that the Bill offends against the tenets of international law and is an abnegation of the finest principles of the Geneva convention on refugees. On questioning the Minister, I hear that it is up to Governments to interpret the convention and that their legal advice allows them to put forward the suggestions they have. The two narratives are at odds with each other. I do not know and cannot tell which is true. I have asked noble and learned Lords in this House to help us to know which is true. If, as a reasonably intelligent man, I cannot understand which of those two narratives is true, where has truth gone and what is trust all about? Look to ourselves to weigh up the answers to the questions we ask of others.
My Lords, I thank the committee for this report. While I do not agree with lots of its recommendations, it is packed full of fascinating research.
One criticism is that it puts too much faith in the forthcoming online harms legislation to restore democratic trust. If anything is likely to undermine trust, it is a lack of candour about what laws will achieve. The public are told that the Bill will mainly tackle protecting children and the vulnerable from all those nasties online: violent porn, grim suicide sites and hateful, bullying trolls. If only the Bill focused its attention on targeted, creative solutions to those issues, I would be less concerned.
On that, I record my support for the determined efforts of the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, to fast-track statutory age assurance. I hope the Minister will confirm the Government’s backing for this robust, quality child-protection model that, crucially, protects the right to privacy.
In reality, this report and the Bill are much broader and will affect adults. I fear that in the name of protecting adults from what is called legal but harmful online content, freedom of speech will be curtailed and democratic debate undermined.
Today I will explore the chilling effect of identifying misinformation as a chief culprit in damaging trust. We may all think that we agree on what constitutes misinformation—cranky 5G conspiracy theories or Russian war propaganda—but recently the term has become politically loaded: less a neutral, objective description of misleading statements and more used by those officially sanctioned as informed to suppress valid scepticism or silence dissidents who challenge official orthodoxies. The removal of what is dubbed misinformation narrows the plurality of information available in the public square.
It should at least give us pause that Putin has declared fake news illegal and is locking up Russian citizens for posting so-called misinformation about Ukraine. We must avoid emulating this propagandist approach of allowing only official versions of the truth. In the free West, we need to query the wisdom of creating new power brokers that get to arbitrate the truth, whether they are unelected regulators, big tech platforms or newly fashionable fact-checkers. I like the quote in the report from the Kofi Annan commission, which shows that it is more complicated. It said that
“there has never been a time when citizens in democracies all shared the same facts or agreed on what constitutes a fact. Democratic citizens often disagree on fundamental facts and certainly do not vote on the basis of shared truths. Democracy is needed precisely because citizens do not agree on … facts.”
Covid brought a lot of these tensions to the fore. The report notes that the pandemic means that
“online misinformation poses not only a real and present danger to our democracy but also to our lives.”
When misinformation is so darkly posed as a life-or-death danger, it gives a green light, as it did, to active censorship by big tech of a range of interviews, articles and YouTube films, and to the cancelling and reputational destruction of many individuals. But how reliable was this online public health war on misinformation? For example, the report congratulates government statisticians on their high-quality statistics, which helped the public to scrutinise policy. However, since the report was written, many of those statistics have been exposed as misleading or revealed as inaccurate conflations with projections—or, even worse, as using worst-case scenarios as a form of behaviour-change policy—yet anyone who raised queries about the data at the time was dubbed a dangerous spreader of misinformation.
Then there is the Wuhan lab leak theory. For many months, the likes of Ofcom, social media platforms and the scientific establishment called that dangerous misinformation. But now we know better—in part thanks to Viral by Viscount Ridley. We know about the WHO’s whitewashed 2021 report on Covid’s origins. We have read the emails between the Wellcome Trust’s Sir Jeremy Farrar and Dr Ron Fouchier, admitting that the leak theory was plausible but, if known publicly, might harm science so should be suppressed. Yet, even now, none of this is dubbed misinformation.
These double standards, and the censorship of material branded as misinformation, contribute to a climate of mistrust. People say, “Why was it removed? What have they got to hide?” There is growing cynicism about the motives of those in power to decide what is the truth and what the public are allowed to see, hear and say. I turn all this on its head. If there is a trust deficit, perhaps it is a top-down loss of trust in the public, and a default assumption that the public are hapless and hopeless citizens, easily duped by malevolent agendas, passively imbibing what they see and read uncritically and incapable of evaluating information.
I urge the committee and the Government to rediscover earlier optimism and focus on technology as a democratising force. As the report notes, anyone with a mobile phone has a printing press, a broadcast station and a library in their pocket. That allows the previously marginalised to challenge traditional gatekeepers. Let us be careful that a moral panic about misinformation does not create a new cast of censorious gatekeepers, at the expense of trust in the public and at the expense of free speech.
My Lords, like most noble Lords, I am absolutely thrilled to see Lord Puttnam here today on the steps of the Throne. His wisdom and fingerprints are all over this cracking report and we owe him a great debt of thanks. Speaking very personally, I have to say that it is a real tragedy that he is no longer a Member of this House. My noble friend Lord Lipsey is to be congratulated on stepping into his shoes and delivering such a masterful introduction to this debate.
Never one to hold back, Lord Puttnam said in another speech that the Government’s response was “lamentable” and:
“It came across as if written by a robot”.
I will go a little further. On this committee sat Members of your Lordships’ House, drawn from all sides, each of whom has extensive experience of the dangers to our democracy from the misuse of digital technology—and we have heard from this debate just how powerful and experienced all the contributors are. So why did DCMS produce such a tepid and bland reply to our report, and why did it not accept many of our 45 recommendations? We know the answer: it just ignored them. Written by a robot? More likely written by a junior with the brief, “Write 25 pages and say nothing”.
I wish to contain my comments to recommendation 8:
“The Competition and Markets Authority should conduct a full market investigation into online platforms’ control over digital advertising.”
I will link that to what I believe to be the massive dangers to our democracy posed by big tech, in particular Google and Facebook; I do not have to use their other names, Alphabet and Meta.
When Google was founded, it had a corporate mantra which proclaimed, “Do no evil”. Facebook had one too. It was “Move fast and break things”. Today, Google has 3.5 billion daily searches; Facebook has 1.7 billion active users. These staggering figures show that both services are hugely popular in much of the world, and they are also free of charge. But, of course, we all know that they are not free, because their product is each one of us, and our combined data is very valuable. The amount of data that Google has on all of us is mind blowing: 10,000 petabytes, a number that is so immense I cannot even conceive of it. How does Google collect it? From our location, from our searches, from the apps we use and from what we buy and where we buy it. Facebook has 300 petabytes of information as well: a smaller number but still huge.
Both companies monetise this data by using algorithms that produce results that are vital to advertisers in selling their products. If data is the new oil, Google and Facebook and their sister companies, WhatsApp, YouTube and Instagram, are literally swimming in it. The ownership of such data gives these companies enormous power—corporate power the likes of which has never been seen before. But they have not behaved like responsible citizens. In the political environment, we have seen massive abuses of power, particularly by Facebook. The role of Cambridge Analytica in the 2016 Brexit referendum, and then its role in the 2020 presidential election in the United States, are famous examples. The data it provided, and the manner in which it obtained it, were contrary to the best aspects of democracy. Frances Haugen, the Facebook whistleblower, said of Facebook in her brave testimony to the House of Commons Select Committee:
“Unquestionably, it is making hate worse.”
Their power of these companies is awesome. Their bank accounts are huge. They are staffed by brilliant people and they hire the best advice in the world, Mr Clegg included. Plus they pay minuscule tax on their enormous global profits. From an economic point of view, both Facebook and Google are monopolies —and not just national monopolies but global ones. Google, for example, has 92% of the UK search market; YouTube’s figures are even higher. These companies engage in surveillance capitalism. They are dangerous and we need to curb their power.
Luckily, movement is afoot. In the United States, Lina Khan, head of the FTC, is pushing for antitrust Bills. In the US Senate, Amy Klobuchar has introduced a Bill. In the EU, Margrethe Vestager is introducing a digital services act to regulate big technology. But we lag behind. I ask the Minister whether the Government have any plans to encourage the CMA to investigate the monopoly powers and influence of big tech. Big tech moves fast and breaks things. Big tech also facilitates hate and evil. We, the lawmakers, are ponderous and slow to act, but the threat to our democracy is real and we need to move with haste.
My Lords, this has been an inspiring debate. Events in Ukraine should make us all cherish our democracy in Britain and reinforce our determination to reinforce democratic values across the world. Nothing can compare with the suffering of the Ukrainian people in the defence of their democracy: they are a shining example to us all.
It is regrettable that we are debating this excellent report, which is still highly topical, nearly two years after it was published. I, like all of us who have spoken in this debate, very much miss Lord Puttnam leading the charge on the issues so important to him, and with which his valedictory lecture last October dealt so brilliantly. We also owe a big debt of gratitude to the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, for stepping in and for his masterful introduction. It is good to see so many members of the committee participating today.
As the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, says, what seemed controversial then has become commonplace today. Some of the recommendations of the committee are already in the pipeline, but we need to give far more attention, as the noble Lord, Lord Harris, said, to the other recommendations that are not in the pipeline. Given the crossover with many aspects of the report of the Joint Committee on the Draft Online Safety Bill, I am particularly pleased to be taking part in this debate today.
In a piece four years ago, US tech journalist Dylan Matthews wrote:
“The internet was supposed to save democracy… How could we have gotten this so wrong?”
He wrote this in the light of alleged manipulation by Russia both in the US presidential elections and in the Brexit vote, with the aid of Cambridge Analytica, which used data collected online from millions of personal Facebook accounts, targeting individuals with specific misinformation. As the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, said, we were too slow to see the risks. As the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, said, who doubts this activity now?
In the intervening years, the power of viral disinformation on social media has become even clearer. The long-delayed report on Russian interference, by the Intelligence and Security Committee in July 2020, said:
“The UK is clearly a target for Russia’s disinformation campaigns and political influence operations and must therefore equip itself to counter such efforts.”
We also had the riots at the Capitol in Washington DC on 6 January 2021, mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Harris. An investigation by ProPublica and the Washington Post found that Facebook groups swelled —with at least 650,000 posts attacking the legitimacy of Joe Biden’s victory—between election day and the 6 January riot, with many calling for executions or other political violence.
We have had former Facebook—now Meta—employee Frances Haugen’s damning testimony, mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, and the noble Lord, Lord Mitchell, to the USA Senate and our own Joint Committee on the Draft Online Safety Bill, on which I sat. She accused the company of putting
“astronomical profits before people.”
Most of us need little convincing that things have gone badly wrong somewhere, and in 2022, after Covid lockdown, the situation seems worse. But as the report of the Democracy and Digital Technologies Committee says, we must look at the roots of the problem and the accountabilities involved. It is all about the power of the algorithm and data, as the noble Lords, Lord Stevenson and Lord Mitchell, said.
We are being targeted with our own data. Online political microtargeting is used to alter how we vote, especially with misinformation. As the noble Lord, Lord Harris, said, extreme content is amplified as part of the platform business model. Outrage is encouraged. Their business models operate directly against the best interests of a democratic society. They prey on us, in that vivid phrase quoted by the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron. Lord Puttnam made the strong point in his valedictory lecture that 6 January was a wake-up call to tackling the problems with microtargeting and algorithm bias which underlie the business models of the social media platforms.
Ownership of data is increasingly concentrated in the hands of big internet brands, as we have heard from a number of noble Lords today. Metcalfe’s law of networks has led to enormous and growing power for social media.
What should the consequences be for social media? How can we prevent these harms to democracy? How can we restore trust—or resurrect it, in the words of the report? The bottom line is that we do have the power, as the noble Lords, Lord Holmes and Lord Stevenson, said. We need government regulation, and quickly, as the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, said. In the phrase used by Avaaz, we need to detoxify the algorithm, not only regarding hate speech, terrorism and cyberbullying but in very clear electoral regulation and action by the Competition and Markets Authority to enforce competition in the tech and data space.
We also need much greater personal control over our data and how it is used. Misinformation and disinformation are particularly hard to define, but as the committee said, if the Government decide that the online safety Bill is not the appropriate place to do so, then it should use the Elections Bill, which is currently making its way through Parliament. Tackling societal harms caused by misinformation and disinformation is not straightforward, as our Joint Committee found, but the draft online safety Bill, as we described in our report of last December, needs to go further.
There is of course a tension with freedom of expression. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, about that being a major consideration, but I certainly do not agree with her analysis, and as we emphasised, we must prioritise tackling specific harmful activity over restricting content.
In our Joint Committee report, we recommended safety by design requirements, such as increasing transparency and countering algorithmic power and virality; as Fair Vote says, it is a proven way to preserve free speech, while limiting free reach of content that poses societal harm at scale. For example, we heard that a simple change—introducing more friction into sharing on Facebook—would have the same effect on the spread of misinformation and disinformation as the entire third-party fact checking system.
We do not yet know what the Government’s response to these recommendations is—that may come next week—but we do have the Elections Bill in front of us. The real government reluctance is in reform of electoral law and regulation of digital political activity. Apart from the digital imprint provisions, the Bill fails to take any account of the mounting evidence and concerns about the impact on our democracy of misinformation and disinformation. The Government are yet even to adopt the Electoral Commission report of June 2018, Digital Campaigning: Increasing Transparency for Voters, which called for urgent reforms to electoral law to combat misinformation, misuse of personal data and overseas interference in elections amid concerns that British democracy may be under threat. Why are these recommendations not contained in the Elections Bill? We heard in the previous debate today about the flaws in that Bill, and I am very pleased that the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, is very well aware of the deficiencies in the Bill.
How prescient was the ISC in its Russia report:
“The links of the Russian elite to the UK – especially where this involves business and investment – provide access to UK companies and political figures, and thereby a means for broad Russian influence in the UK. To a certain extent, this cannot be untangled and the priority now must be to mitigate the risk and ensure that, where hostile activity is uncovered, the tools exist to tackle it at source.”
Most recently, the Committee on Standards in Public Life has made a number of other important recommendations regarding digital and social media campaigning.
But, as have heard today, this is not enough. Regulation by itself will not deal with all the issues. Even though we are facing issues that threaten democracy, we should be trying to preserve the good that the internet has done as we work to mitigate its harm to our political system. So, as well as regulation, there needs as be—as the Democracy and Digital Technologies Committee report says—public engagement to support digital understanding at all levels of society. As several noble Lords said, including the noble Lords, Lord Vaizey and Lord Harris, and the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, digital literacy and digital skills are of huge importance, as also emphasised by the committee’s report. We must do more than simply expect Ofcom—even under the chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Vaizey—to deliver a digital media strategy. This needs a whole-of-government and whole-of-society approach. We are supposed to be the cradle of democracy, yet the EU is way ahead of us in its proposals to regulate political advertising. This needs cross-governmental action and much greater action from social media platforms themselves.
At the end of the day, however, we need to look in the mirror. We deserve a better system. The Government are playing into the hands of those who wish to erode our democracy by digital means. Why are they intent on reducing the independence of the Electoral Commission? As the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths, said, trust in our democracy has been eroded by this Government—certainly by the negative response so graphically described by the noble Lord, Lord Mitchell. The Government must change tack and provide effective safeguards.
My Lords, like all other noble Lords who have taken part in this debate, I of course pay tribute to Lord Puttnam and his committee, which had a stellar cast and is well represented in this debate by my noble friends Lord Harris, Lord Lipsey—who gave a brilliant introduction—Lord Mitchell and Lady Morris of Yardley, as well as the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, and the noble Lords, Lord Lucas and Lord Holmes. Lord Puttnam has been a friend and mentor to most of us and continues to be as we enter a period where we can begin to consider some of the issues raised by the report when the online safety Bill comes before us. I was also pleased to hear the noble Lord, Lord Vaizey. His speech today probably has earned him the benefit of a second interview for the role at Ofcom.
On reflection, I rather missed out getting on to this committee. I have now discovered or have invented a new phrase: committee envy, which I never thought I would experience as a Member of your Lordships’ House. I was also delighted to hear in the debate from my noble friend Lord Stevenson and from the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, who, as ever, managed to cram much into his 10-minute offering to your Lordships.
As the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, said, it was an inspiring debate. The report itself was published very much in the context of Covid-19 nearly two years ago, but it is worth heeding Lord Puttnam’s warning then and now that misinformation and disinformation should themselves be treated as deep-rooted viruses.
The committee argued in 2020 for swift action on what was then known as the online harms agenda. While the rebranded online safety Bill has since been published in draft form and scrutinised by the Joint Committee, it does not feel as if we have taken many huge strides forward since the report was published, as the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, said. The DCMS is now, it seems, regularly drip-feeding its response to the Joint Committee’s recommendations, just as it has been drip-feeding its response to the online safety Bill. We hear that it may well be published next week, which will be very welcome. However, we should all remain very concerned about the lengthy gestation period of this legislation. As noble Lords said this afternoon, digital technology moves at a faster pace than we can legislate, and, given the amount of parliamentary time that the Bill will require, by the time it has completed its course it will have become out of date, and then of course we go into the lengthy period before its enactment. We will always be playing chase-up in this legislative field.
The failure to legislate swiftly is of course having real-world consequences. As many noble Lords observed today, we have witnessed the unprecedented online disinformation on Covid-19 and the development of the vaccines, which have done so much to protect us all from that disease. In recent weeks we have witnessed attempts by the Russian state and its sympathisers to undermine the West’s consensus against Putin’s aggression in Ukraine, including the circulation of so-called deep-fake videos on social media platforms which attempt to prove somehow that Russia is acting in self-defence. Just this week, the Russian embassy has been putting out tweets trying to create false narratives and fake news. That is dangerous for world peace—a threat to trust in good government and to democracy itself. Each time these processes go unchallenged, the potential for future disinformation campaigns grows exponentially; we must do everything we can to break this vicious cycle.
Regrettably, we continue to see the erosion of the seven principles of public life, which were originally designed to ensure trust in our democratic institutions. These are woven through the report, and valuably so. However, our own Prime Minister and his team regularly make assertions which leave fact-checkers scrambling to correct the record. Recently, Full Fact tweeted:
“Boris Johnson has once again falsely claimed there are more people in work now than before the pandemic began. That’s the SEVENTH time he’s got that wrong in Parliament.”
The Office for National Statistics
“have *told him* this is wrong. He must stop saying this and correct the record.”
The Prime Minister speaks convincingly of the need to stand up and defend democracy from the Russian state, but that task is as much about deeds as words. On our side, we believe he must be seen to lead by example, but recent opinion polls have consistently shown that an overwhelming majority of the public believe he is dishonest and untrustworthy. To tackle the major issues of the day like the war on Ukraine, it is ever more important that our leaders speak the truth to other people’s power.
I was not intending to ask for updates on the online safety Bill today because we have heard that it may well be coming. As disappointing as the delays have been, it seems that there is finally some evidence of action. However, in his response could the Minister roughly sketch out the Government’s timetable for this, because that would be a service to the House and to public debate? We hope to see it introduced prior to the Queen’s Speech—we hear that it may well be—so that MPs can begin tabling and debating important amendments between the gracious Speech and the Summer Recess.
One of the key areas identified by the committee related to electoral law, and we have heard much this afternoon on that topic. It is disappointing that the Government have chosen to prioritise requiring personal ID at polling stations over all the other sensible recommendations relating to electoral law and the requirements for online political advertising. The Government’s legislation currently in your Lordships’ House will, despite the protestations of the noble Lord, Lord True, disfranchise legitimate voters and severely undermine the democratic process; whereas adopting the Law Commission’s recommendations and others could have strengthened our elections and therefore public trust in political personalities and institutions, as the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, argued.
The failure to act on online adverts is perhaps unsurprising. During the 2019 election, analysis by the organisation First Draft suggested that 88% of Facebook ads posted by the Conservative Party pushed statistics that had been disputed by Full Fact, the UK’s leading fact-checking organisation. Let us hope that the changes we need, as we approach the next general election, come to this use and abuse of statistics. The committee’s proposed rules on online imprints and enhanced transparency measures for digital adverts would not have prevented all instances of misleading material, but they may have made creators think twice and provided the Electoral Commission with extra tools when considering compliance issues.
It is incumbent on all of us to nurture our democracy; it is far more important than the fortunes of any political party at the next election or the ego of any individual politician. The Government’s response to the committee’s report in September 2020 was far from convincing. Perhaps the Minister will tell us how many of the 45 recommendations the Government decided to act on and take forward, and how many of them they support. The Government’s actions since the publication of their response have done little to convince us in restoring public trust, although that is increasingly desirable.
The Minister is fair-minded, and I am sure he will do his best to defend the Government’s record. If only he and his colleagues put as much effort into defending our democratic traditions, we might find ourselves in a more favourable position, with our digital economic strength advancing the democratic cause at this crucial time in our history.
My Lords, it would be churlish in the extreme, as a Minister appointed more than a year after this report was published, and given that the intervening months have seen the retirement of the noble Lord who chaired the committee which produced it, not to begin by recognising that this debate has been too long in coming. I am very sorry that we have not had the benefit of the active participation of Lord Puttnam in today’s debate, but I am very glad to see him, as all noble Lords who spoke have noted, sitting on the steps of the Throne. I was struck by the way his spirit and the work he led in chairing the committee have suffused today’s debate.
I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, for stepping into the breach and outlining not only the hard work that went into the production of this report but the enjoyment that noble Lords got from their work. I am pleased Lord Puttnam was here to hear that. If there is any benefit from the delay in having this debate, it is that there are further examples, as the report rightly anticipated, which underline the importance of this topic—not least, of course, the very troubling situation in Ukraine.
Russia continues to use disinformation to attempt to justify its military action against Ukraine, and that is straight out of Russia’s playbook. We have already declassified compelling intelligence exposing Russian intent to install a puppet regime in Ukraine, and we will continue to disclose any Russian use of cyberattacks, false-flag operations or disinformation. Accompanied by baseless rhetoric and disinformation, as the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, rightly noted in his speech just now, Russian authorities falsely cast Ukraine as a threat to justify their aggressive stance. This is a transparent attempt at disinformation to provide a pretext for military action. In total, more than 100 different stories promoting unfounded claims around pretexts for invasion were identified as being disseminated by Kremlin-controlled media in February alone. The world can now see through the Kremlin’s lies and we will hold them to account by telling the truth about Russia’s illegal, pre-planned and reprehensible actions.
I turn to the substance of our debate and the recommendations of the committee’s report. I will begin, as the committee did, with the importance of informed citizens. I was pleased that the report recognised the vital role of local and public-interest journalism, and I agree wholeheartedly. I had the pleasure of discussing that issue with noble Lords in what I think was my first appearance at the Dispatch Box in my role at DCMS, in response to the Communications Committee’s excellent report on the future of journalism, which my noble friend Lord Vaizey of Didcot and others rightly mentioned. The noble Lord, Lord Griffiths of Burry Port, is right to point to the organic interconnectedness of the many debates that we have been having on these issues.
As the report recommended, the Cairncross review has served as the foundation for our work to support the sustainability of that important sector. We agreed with the majority of the recommendations made by the review and have been taking them forward through a range of fiscal and regulatory interventions.
The committee made recommendations regarding online safety legislation, which a large number of speakers understandably touched on in their contributions today. I welcome and endorse what the committee said about the importance of the online safety Bill and confirm that the Government are working to introduce that world-leading legislation, which will ensure that platforms are made accountable for the harmful content on their sites, as swiftly as possible. I am afraid I cannot give quite as much detail as the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, and the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, might hope, other than to say that they will not have to wait much longer.
The committee rightly notes the real harm caused by disinformation and misinformation and recommends that it be covered by the online safety Bill. I can confirm that, as the committee recommended, disinformation and misinformation are within the scope of that Bill, which will address content that is illegal, that is harmful to children and certain types of legal content that is harmful to adults.
The Government agree with the committee that service users must be empowered to seek action, both if they encounter harmful content on a regulated service and if they think that the service has treated them or their content unfairly. All companies in scope of the new regulations will have a legal duty to have effective and accessible user reporting and redress mechanisms.
I recognise the committee’s specific recommendation to establish an independent ombudsman for the online safety regime. We will continue to consider that proposal and will respond to it in due course. However, it should be noted that the online safety Bill already provides a suite of provisions to ensure that users can complain to platforms and that appropriate action is taken. Shifting responsibility for user redress to an ombudsman may disincentivise companies from taking responsibility for the concerns of their users, which is a key objective for the new regulatory framework.
That framework involves a key role for Ofcom. I am sure that my noble friend Lord Vaizey of Didcot will understand that I cannot comment on the process to appoint a new chairman, but I am sure he and all the candidates acquitted themselves well enough to deserve a hug. Where companies fail to comply with their duties, Ofcom—under its new chairman—will have the power to impose substantial fines of up to £18 million or 10% of global annual turnover, whichever is higher; to direct companies to take specific steps on their platforms to come into compliance; and to apply to the courts for business-disruption measures, including blocking sites. Therefore, it will have the robust powers of sanction that the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson of Balmacara, rightly said were important.
Echoing a number of the committee’s points on the importance of transparency, the Bill will also give Ofcom powers to obtain the information that it needs to regulate effectively. The Bill contains provisions requiring Ofcom to publish a report on access to online safety data by researchers and gives them the power to produce guidance on that as necessary. Ofcom will also have the power to enter premises and inspect, operate and, in some cases, seize documentation and equipment. These powers could also be used in relation to the operation of companies’ algorithms, a point brought up by the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, and others. The Bill will also require companies to mitigate the risks of harm associated with algorithms.
The committee also made recommendations on regulatory digital capacity more broadly. As set out in the plan for digital regulation, the Government are committed to ensuring that our regulators have the right capabilities and expertise to regulate effectively and proportionately. That is why are taking action, including by supporting Ofcom as it prepares to deliver the online safety Bill, working with the Competition and Markets Authority to maximise operational readiness for the new pro-competition regime, reforming the Information Commissioner’s Office to ensure that it remains a world-leading regulator, and working with the Digital Regulation Cooperation Forum to develop its collective capabilities through knowledge exchange on cross-cutting topics.
As the committee rightly noted, and as the noble Baroness, Lady Morris of Yardley, reinforced in her contribution, another critical part of ensuring that people are engaged is making certain that they have the skills to empower them to be digitally literate and engage critically with content they see online. That is why in July 2021 the Government published our Online Media Literacy Strategy and accompanying action plan, which sets out a range of work that the Government are funding or leading over this financial year. This includes measures recommended by the committee, such as developing a “train the trainer” programme. We have committed to an annual action plan for at least the next three years, but this is, as the noble Baroness said, an area where collective endeavour is needed. I have the privilege of being the Minister responsible for libraries, which are critical in the provision of trusted and accurate information. In my capacity as Arts Minister, I had an interesting discussion this week with Art UK, learning about its programme on the superpower of looking and equipping people with the critical skills to look at the material that they see before them.
The noble Baroness is right that it is important to understand what works, and the Government are committed to addressing the lack of sound evaluation across the media literacy landscape as set out in our online media literacy strategy. Along with the strategy we published a report presenting our mapping of all UK media literacy activity, including the extent to which initiatives have been evaluated. This report sets out our assessment of those evaluations and made recommendations on how interventions and evaluations could be improved in future. We also continue to monitor evidence generated in this important policy area by partners internationally, including in America and Australia and by the European Commission.
Turning to democratic processes, the United Kingdom has a strong tradition of robust political debate and freedom of speech, of which we can all rightly be proud. Protecting this and the integrity of the electoral process is vital. The committee noted the need for an update of electoral law. The Government agree, and the Elections Bill currently before your Lordships’ House will strengthen the integrity of elections so that our democracy remains secure, modern, transparent and fair. Like other noble Lords, I note our previous debate. The Bill prioritises critical reforms in key areas, delivering on manifesto commitments, including introducing voter identification at polling stations to prevent voter fraud, removing the 15-year limit for overseas electors, restricting foreign spending at elections and tackling candidate intimidation.
The Bill includes a number of measures recommended by your Lordships’ committee, such as the introduction of a digital imprints regime, as the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, noted in his opening speech, which will require political campaigners explicitly to show who they are and on whose behalf they are promoting digital campaigning material. The Bill introduces a new lower registration threshold for third-party campaigners spending more than £10,000 during the regulated period before an election. Recognising the importance of enforcement, the regime also includes a general duty on any organisation or person to share information requested by the Electoral Commission.
The Government agree with the committee and the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Haringey, with regard to the risk that disinformation and misinformation pose to the integrity of the democratic process and are taking a range of actions to address this, including through the counterdisinformation unit and the steps we are taking through the online safety Bill. We are committed to defending and encouraging political debate. It is for this reason that content of democratic importance and journalistic content are protected in the online safety Bill and that the Bill contains strong safeguards for freedom of expression.
In connection with the Elections Bill, the noble Baroness, Lady Fox of Buckley, is right that policy and political arguments, which can be rebutted by rival campaigners in a free press as part of the normal course of political debate, should not be regulated. It is a matter for voters to decide whether they consider materials accurate. Electoral regulation should empower voters to make those decisions, not dictate to them. We have a tradition of robust political debate and free speech in our democracy. It is not for state quangos to regulate what candidates and political parties say when making their case to the electorate.
Similarly, while digital technology has a vital role to play in facilitating engagement with the democratic process, it is important to strike a balance between accessibility and security. As part of the introduction of voter ID at polling stations, we are also developing an online system for electors who do not have a suitable form of identification to get a free voter card. This will accompany a paper-based route for those who need to use it. Furthermore, we are changing legislation and developing a system to allow voters to apply for a postal or proxy vote online, which will ensure that electors have both digital and non-digital routes to play their part in the democratic process. At the same time, we are introducing identity verification for absent vote applications to ensure that that process is protected from fraud.
We are witnessing a rapid expansion of the role that digital technology plays in all aspects of society. We must ensure that people are empowered to make the most of this moment while remaining vigilant against the challenges that new technologies can present. Noble Lords have been right to point to some of the benefits that can accrue from those changing technologies, but they are absolutely right to point also to the challenges and threats that they pose. We will rightly debate these in great detail very soon when we debate the online safety Bill. We are debating them already in your Lordships’ House in the context of the Elections Bill. I look forward to more debates on this important topic.
I conclude by reiterating my tribute to Lord Puttnam and to the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, and to all noble Lords who served on the committee and others who have spoken in today’s debate. I thank the noble Lord for bringing the debate to the House.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply, which, besides its other virtues, was continent in the time it took given the richness of the debate. I thank everybody who took part; I honestly think that it is—and will read as—one of the best debates I have heard in this House. Its blend of expertise, eloquence and passion could act as a tutorial on the main issues facing us to anybody who reads it. Anyway, it is late, and time to go home. I beg to move.
House adjourned at 2.42 pm.