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Combating Disinformation: Freedom of Expression

Volume 836: debated on Tuesday 13 February 2024


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to protect freedom of expression in the course of their work on combating disinformation.

My Lords, I draw the attention of the House to my role as chair of Big Brother Watch and beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.

Preserving individuals’ rights to freedom of expression underpins all the Government’s work on tackling disinformation. This right is upheld by the Online Safety Act, which protects freedom of expression by addressing only the most egregious forms of disinformation, ensuring that people can engage in free debate and discussion online. Under the Act, when putting in place safety measures to fulfil their duties, companies are also required to consider and implement safeguards for freedom of expression.

I thank the Minister for his reply. Last year, Big Brother Watch exposed worrying overreach by the Counter Disinformation Unit in its attempts to prevent legitimate criticism of the Government by MPs, journalists and academics. Following the Government’s apology, could the Minister tell the House what, if anything, has changed, apart from the unit’s name? Could he please explain why the Government refuse to allow the Intelligence and Security Committee to oversee the work of what is now called the National Security Online Information Team?

First, the Counter Disinformation Unit has indeed changed its name to the National Security Online Information Team, to better reflect its role. I am not aware of the apology to which the noble Lord refers, but I will look into it. I have not heard of it. The NSOIT, as it is now called, does not target individuals, particularly not politicians or journalists. It does not even go after individual pieces of content but looks for trends across all items of content online. I will look into this case for an apology, but I am surprised by it because I am not aware of it.

My Lords, the Question of the noble Lord, Lord Strasburger, requires a little further interrogation, because that report by Big Brother Watch suggested that during the pandemic, politicians, journalists and civil society campaigners from across the political spectrum were personally targeted for critiquing the Government’s handling of the pandemic. Given that report and these legitimate concerns, it would be very kind if the Minister and his colleagues would look into this further and write to the noble Lord, Lord Strasburger, and, indeed, to anyone else affected.

Yes, I am very happy to write any such letter. I confirm now in front of the House that the function of the NSOIT, formerly the Counter Disinformation Unit, is to analyse attempts to artificially manipulate the information environment for purposes of national security. It is not its function—and never has been its function, regardless of its name—to go after individuals, whether they are politicians, journalists, or anybody else. It looks for at-scale attempts to manipulate the information environment.

My Lords, it is clear we need to be assured that the rather concerning activities reported about the CDU treating political criticism as disinformation are no longer practised by NSOIT. Can the Minister explain where we can find a copy of NSOIT’s policies? Can he confirm whether it has a policy to prohibit it from flagging lawful domestic speech for terms of service violations to social media companies?

Information on NSOIT is posted on GOV.UK, and I am happy to share that location with the noble Lord. I can confirm not only that it is not the role of NSOIT or the CDU to go after any individuals, regardless of their political belief, but that it never has been. NSOIT looks for large-scale attempts to pollute the information environment, generally as a result of threats from foreign states. I am happy to say in front of the House that the idea that its purpose is also to go after, in some ways, those who disagree politically with the Government is categorically false.

My Lords, the issue is much more complex than that. I am concerned that the unit to which the Minister referred seems to be concerned only about security issues now. In December, I asked the Minister about the rise of political deepfakes, which often originate from overseas and have the potential to undermine trust in political leaders and our wider democratic processes. With the Data Protection and Digital Information Bill currently before the House already containing measures on what the Government call “democratic engagement”, can I tempt the Minister to bring forward new anti-deepfake provisions to help preserve the integrity of our upcoming general election—and not just our election in a year of big elections?

Indeed. It is worth reminding the House that close to 2 billion people will go to the polls over this calendar year. A great many of those elections in which they participate will come under attack from malign foreign influences. Therefore, we have implemented the Defending Democracy Taskforce, chaired by the Security Minister, which set up a new unit last year specifically dedicated to safeguarding our coming election, whenever it may be. It continues to engage with various committees of Parliament and with the Electoral Commission. We will look carefully at any proposals on deepfake provisions in the DPDI Bill. Deepfakes are already illegal today if they violate either the foreign interference offence or the false communications offence.

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Strasburger asked about the parliamentary scrutiny of the unit. Does the Minister understand that, if there were to be proper scrutiny of the unit, some of the words that he uses to try to placate your Lordships’ House would have deeper resonance? Can he tell us why the ISC is not scrutinising the unit?

NSOIT is indeed scrutinised by Ministers; it sits within DSIT and then Ministers, as we see, come before this House to explain matters. As a national security team, I dare say that we would have some concerns about a standing report to Parliament about its activities, but I can continue to reassure the House on its role.

My Lords, can my noble friend the Minister explain how this very interesting unit is comprised? Who are the members of the unit and from where do they come?

The unit comprises civil servants who sit within DSIT, and it occasionally makes use of external consulting services. It adjusts its size and membership from within the DSIT team according to the nature of the threat at any given moment.

My Lords, on transparency: we would not know about the Counter Disinformation Unit if it was not for Big Brother Watch, which we owe great thanks for its service on that. The Minister seems to know what disinformation is. Can the Government tell us how they identify what is to be labelled as disinformation? Who checks the fact checkers? For example, BBC Verify seems keen to expose everybody else’s disinformation but seems blind to its own egregious examples of inaccurate information.

Well, the Government are clear, as is NSOIT, that disinformation refers to the deliberate attempt to mislead by placing falsehoods into the information environment. As part of the Civil Service, NSOIT would have robust internal measures to verify and check its own work, and indeed it reports regularly across government and to Ministers.

My Lords, can my noble friend the Minister explain what guidance is given to the unit to distinguish between disinformation and difference of opinion?

Disinformation is a deliberate falsehood. A difference of opinion is generally something of democratic importance or of journalistic or pluralistic importance, which it is very important to protect and which the Online Safety Act took very considerable measures to safeguard over its passage.

My Lords, if this unit consists of civil servants and external advisers, why is it impermissible for its work to be supervised by a parliamentary committee composed of privy counsellors?

It was set up as an internal part of DSIT. It reports to Ministers and Ministers provide the oversight. I take the point, but it is a national security institution and, as such, the Government have a strong preference for not allowing it openly to share national security information for fear of benefiting those who wish us harm.