With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement. The Government have today published a White Paper setting out our proposals for making the internet a safer place. For so many people, the internet is an integral part of daily life; nearly 90% of UK adults are online, and for 12 to 15-year-olds the figure is 99%. As the internet continues to grow and transform our lives, we need to think carefully about how we want it to develop. In many ways, the internet is a powerful force for good; it can be used to forge connections, share knowledge and spread opportunity across the world. But it can also be used to circulate terrorist material, undermine civil discourse, spread disinformation, and to bully or abuse.
Our challenge as a society is to help shape an internet that is open and vibrant, but that also protects its users from harm. There is clear evidence that we are not succeeding. Over 8,000 sexual offences against children with an online element were reported to the police in 2017, and that figure is continuing to rise. Up to 20% of young people in the UK have experienced bullying online. The White Paper sets out many more examples of harms suffered. People are closing their social media accounts following unacceptable online abuse. For the vulnerable, online experiences can mean cyber-bullying and the risk of grooming and exploitation. We cannot allow such behaviour to undermine the very real benefits that the digital revolution can bring. If we surrender our online spaces to those who spread hate, abuse and fear, we will all lose.
This is a serious situation and it requires a serious response. The Government have taken time to consider what we might do and how we might do it. I am grateful to Members across the House, and indeed in the other place, for their consideration of these issues, in particular the Select Committee on Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. I am also grateful for the discussions I have had, including with the hon. Member for West Bromwich East (Tom Watson) and his Opposition Front-Bench colleagues. We intend to continue those conversations and to consult on what we propose, because it is vital that we get this right.
No one has done this before. There is no comprehensive international model to follow, and there are important balances to strike, in sustaining innovation in the digital economy and promoting freedom of speech, as well as reducing harm. None of that is straightforward, and the Government should not claim a monopoly on wisdom. That is why the consultation that will follow will be a genuine opportunity for Members of the House and others to contribute to these proposals.
It is also right to recognise that some work is already being done to make the internet a safer place, including by online companies themselves, but it has not been enough and it has been too reactive. It can no longer be right to leave online companies to decide for themselves what action should be taken, as some of them are beginning to recognise. That is why my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and I have concluded that the Government must act and that the era of self-regulation of the internet must end.
The Government will create a new statutory duty of care, establishing it in law that online companies have a responsibility for the safety of their users. It will require companies to do what is reasonable to prevent harmful material from reaching those users. Compliance will be overseen and enforced by an independent regulator. The White Paper sets out the expectations for the steps that companies should take to fulfil the duty of care towards their users, and we expect the regulator to reflect those expectations in new codes of practice. In the case of the most serious harms, such as child sexual exploitation and abuse and the promotion of terrorism, the Home Secretary will need to approve codes of practice and will also have power to issue directions to the regulator about their content. The Home Office will publish interim codes of practice on these subjects later this year. We are consulting on the role that Parliament should have in relation to the codes, too.
If online companies are to persuade the regulator that they are meeting their duty of care to keep their users safe, there will need to be transparency about what is happening on their platforms and what they are doing about it. If they are unwilling to provide the necessary information voluntarily, the regulator will have the power to require annual transparency reports and to demand information from companies relating to the harms on their platforms.
It is also important to give users a voice in this system, so that they can have confidence that their concerns are being treated fairly. We will therefore expect companies to have an effective and easy-to-access complaints function. We are consulting on two further questions—how we can potentially provide users with an independent review mechanism, and how we might allow designated bodies to make super-complaints to defend the needs of users.
For a model based on duty of care to work, those subject to it must be held to account for how they fulfil that duty. That is why we have concluded that a regulator will be necessary, whether a new entity or an extension of the responsibilities of an existing regulatory body. The regulator must be paid for by the online companies, but it is essential that it commands public confidence in its independence, impartiality and effectiveness. We propose that the scope of the regulatory framework will be to cover companies that allow users to share or discover user-generated content or to interact with each other online, where that activity is currently unregulated. That includes a wide variety of organisations, both big and small, from a range of sectors, and the new regulatory regime will need to be flexible enough to operate effectively across them all.
There are two key principles in such an approach. First, the regulator will adopt a risk-based approach, prioritising regulatory action to tackle harms that have the greatest impact on individuals or wider society. Secondly, the regulator will require companies to take reasonable and proportionate actions to tackle harms on their services, taking account of their size and resources. The regulator will expect more of global giants than small start-ups. It is also necessary for the regulator to have sufficient teeth to hold companies to account when they are judged to have breached their statutory duty of care. That will include the power to serve remedial notices and to issue substantial fines, and we will consult on even more stringent sanctions, including senior management liability and the blocking of websites.
However, this regulatory approach is designed to encourage good behaviour as well as punish bad behaviour. Just as technology has created the challenges that we are addressing here, technology will provide many of the solutions, for example, in the identification of terrorist videos online and images of child sexual abuse or in new tools to identify online grooming. The regulator will therefore have broader responsibilities to promote the development and adoption of these technologies and to promote safety by design.
The truth is, however, that if we focus only on what Government or the online companies do, we miss something important. We all need the skills to keep ourselves safe online, and too few of us feel confident that we have them. We will therefore task the regulator to promote those skills, and we will develop a national media literacy strategy.
This White Paper does not aspire to deal with all that is wrong with the internet; no single piece of work could sensibly do so. This White Paper forms part of the Government’s response to the many challenges that the online world brings, but it is focused on some of the most pernicious harms found online and it expects much more of the companies that operate there in tackling those harms. These are big steps, but they need to be taken.
Some will say that the internet is global so no country can act alone, but I believe that we have both a duty to act to protect UK citizens and an opportunity to lead the world on this. With well-deserved worldwide reputations for fostering innovation and respect for the rule of law, the United Kingdom is well placed to design a system of online regulation that the world will want to emulate.
The more we do online, the less acceptable it is that content which is controlled in any other environment is not controlled online. A safer internet is in the interests of responsible online companies, which want their customers to spend more time online, and it is a legitimate expectation of those we represent. That is what this White Paper will deliver, and I commend it and this statement to the House.
I thank the Secretary of State for his courtesy in giving advance notice of his statement. I also thank the members of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee for their meticulous work, much of which has made it into today’s document.
Let me outline what I think is at stake. We are at an inflection point in technological and human advance. Data can transform this planet almost beyond our current comprehension. The ideas of John von Neumann, I.J. Good and Ray Kurzweil tell us how accelerating intelligence and artificial intelligence can lead to a technological singularity. On health, for example, it will allow humans to take control of their own cellular biology; cancer patients worldwide will be able to share their data for the common good.
At the heart of this revolution, however, is a public policy question about the legitimate use of our personal data. That legitimate use has been imperilled because a couple of early big data pioneers distorted the market by making crazy amounts of money from targeted advertising and then protecting their market dominance.
These past months, this House has felt more divided than at perhaps any time in our recent history, yet one person and one cause has united elected representatives of all parties throughout the House—Mark Zuckerberg and the urgent need to bring social media giants into line.
It feels like we are living in a digital dystopia: a nightmare where a young girl commits suicide after being exposed to images of self-harm on Instagram; a business model where a massacre can be livestreamed on Facebook and the video shared thousands of times on YouTube; and a horror where a teenager is groomed in an online gaming community and then murdered in cold blood.
These companies are making billions extracting and monetising our personal data, and what do we get in return? Harms, hate speech and fake news filling our timelines and the minds of young and vulnerable people. It is no wonder that New Zealand’s privacy commissioner called the executives of Facebook “morally bankrupt pathological liars” after the company refused to acknowledge any need to change its policies following the Christchurch mosque attacks. I cannot disagree with him.
We found out today that Google avoided £1.5 billion of corporation tax last year. That could have paid for 60,000 nurses for our NHS. This from a company with a net worth of £645 billion. The abuses and harms perpetrated online represent one of the toughest social policy challenges of modern times. It is our duty, as elected representatives and policy makers, to rise to that challenge, and it is to the Secretary of State’s credit that he has clearly taken that duty seriously today.
Labour has already committed to many of the announcements in this White Paper. An independent regulator, a legal duty of care and a tough sanctions regime will support the Government in introducing these measures, but I have no doubt that the industry will fight back. The tech giants are certainly gearing up for a fight, hiring an army of lobbyists who I expect will be in touch with each of us very soon. I hope we can all make a commitment now that these measures will be the minimum standard of regulation and that we will not resile from any of the report’s recommendations.
There is much in this White Paper to be commended, but we also have concerns. Our biggest fear is that the announcements will take months, if not years, to come to fruition. When terrorists are recruiting, children are being exploited and disinformation wars are being waged online, we do not have time to spare. We need action now. Will the Secretary of State commit to bringing forward the legislation on the new regulator in the next parliamentary Session?
There is nothing in this report about protecting our democracy from dark third-party political advertising and those who wish to sow disinformation and discord. Even Mark Zuckerberg has said that Governments need to introduce regulation to protect electoral integrity. Does the Secretary of State admit that this White Paper fails to do that?
The duty of care codes and the codes of conduct sound like very important steps, but the devil will be in the detail. For example disinformation, such as anti-vaccination propaganda, is being spread unchecked in closed groups on Facebook, contributing to a burgeoning public health crisis. Will the Secretary of State explain how this White Paper might tackle that?
Underlying all the harms, hate and fake news on social media platforms is one central, fundamental problem: the distorted digital market dominated by a small number of data monopolies. These companies surveil our every like and share, extract our data and sell it on to advertisers 10 times over. They are hoovering up companies big and small, suppressing competition and innovation. They are now so dominant that they think themselves too big to fail—untouchable by mere national Governments.
We agree with the Secretary of State that this is only the start, and we respect what is in this White Paper and will work to help deliver it, but the truth is that, until we deal with the fundamental issue of data monopolists dominating the market, we will never really see the end of this digital dystopia.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman not just for what he has said this afternoon but for the open approach he has taken to the discussion of these matters. As he says, this is one of the toughest policy challenges we face, and I believe we will resolve it only if we are able to work across the House to make sure that what we produce is as robust as it can be.
As the hon. Gentleman also says, there will be a considerable amount of resistance to what is proposed in this White Paper, and we will all need to hold our nerve in the face of that pressure. He asks about legislation, and it is our intention to legislate in the next parliamentary Session, but he will understand that there is a tension between the urgency, which we all accept exists, to tackle these harms and, indeed, to legislate to do so and the need to make sure that we have taken account of the views and the thinking that others can contribute. He knows that I have sought to do that up to this point, and I will seek to do it from this point on. I want to ensure that we make this as robust as we can, that we get it right, that we have understood the detail, and that it will stand up to the kind of scrutiny and pressure that he rightly describes. With that tension in mind, we will move as quickly as we can.
On electoral integrity, the hon. Gentleman heard me say a moment ago that the White Paper does not represent the sum total of the Government’s action in relation to harms on the internet more broadly. He will know that the Cabinet Office will imminently be bringing forward its “defending democracy” piece of work. I hope he will find in that a good deal of the material he referred to. Indeed, while a good number of the Government’s responses to the excellent piece of work produced by the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee are, as he said, dealt with in the White Paper, some will be dealt with in that document.
Disinformation is, as the hon. Gentleman knows, one of the harms that we have identified in the White Paper as needing the attention of the regulator. We believe that a number of things can be done. We will expect the regulator, in its codes of practice and through the duty of care more broadly, to focus on the need to ensure that authoritative sources are prioritised over non-authoritative sources and that fact checking is available. There are other measures that the regulator could take, not least in respect of the point I made about public education. In relation to many of the issues on which disinformation is focused, we believe that the answer, at least in part, is to ensure that our fellow citizens are equipped with the skills they need to understand what they should be looking for to determine what they believe and what they do not. That is a legitimate focus for the regulator.
Finally, the hon. Gentleman mentioned competition, and I understand his focus on that. Again, I make the point that it will be dealt with, but that it will be dealt with elsewhere. He will know about the Furman review, which was recently completed at the Government’s instigation. We will take seriously what Professor Furman and his panel have said, and we will respond in due course. When we do so, the hon. Gentleman will have the opportunity to take the matter up again, and I know he will.
I thank the Secretary of State for his kind words acknowledging the work of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee and for accepting so many of our recommendations in the White Paper. I want to ask expressly about the investigatory powers of the proposed new regulator. Does he agree that it is important that the job of the regulator is not just to identify that a failure in the duty of care has occurred, but to go into the company and investigate why that failure occurred, who knew about it and when, and what needs to be done to ensure that such a failure does not happen again? Only with that sort of internal investigation and scrutiny will we be able to set companies back on the right path.
I agree with my hon. Friend. He will see in the White Paper provisions to make transparency powers available to the regulator, not just so that it can ask for annual transparency reports from online companies, but so that when the regulator thinks it appropriate to do so, it can ask specific questions about information that it wishes to have. It will of course be important, as he will recognise from the work of the Select Committee, to make sure that the regulator is properly staffed with those who have the necessary skills and understanding to ask the right questions and then understand the answers. We will certainly attend to that, and I am grateful for the help of my hon. Friend and the Committee in developing some of the further detail.
I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of the statement. Although it is disappointing that the White Paper was delayed, I commend the Secretary of State and the Home Secretary on the sensible and robust plans, which the Scottish National party absolutely supports. The devil will, however, be in the detail.
The extended Ofcom or the new regulator that is created will have a big and serious job on its hands. Will the Secretary of State reassure us that any regulator will be properly resourced and have the full weight of the law behind it? The protection of vulnerable children is of particular concern to many of the stakeholders and schools I have spoken to in my Livingston constituency.
The Secretary of State made some important points about people closing their social media accounts because of abuse. The reality is that online abuse has a disproportionate impact on women and girls, who face sexism and misogyny, and are readily silenced online. I am sure that he will be aware of the work of Caroline Criado Perez and her book on this issue. In a world designed for men, women and girls are being rendered invisible. That cannot continue.
Just because a regulator is appointed does not mean it will be effective. The 2008 financial crash had to happen before the Financial Conduct Authority started to regulate effectively. Any regulator, the Secretary of State says, will be paid for by the online companies. Will he say more about how that will be levied? He also mentioned that the Home Secretary will publish an interim code of practice. Will he give us a sense of when that is to happen because, as we know, it is desperately needed?
I understand—we understand—that a balance needs to be struck with free speech. The tech companies seem to take the issues of terrorism, child abuse and paedophilia a bit more seriously, but the everyday abuse of people in public life and young people, particularly girls in schools, is a serious concern. I commend to the Secretary of State “The Burning” by Laura Bates, a brilliant book that draws on Laura’s own experience of talking to students in schools. It is about a young woman who is forced to move school and country because of the vitriolic abuse that she faced online.
The Secretary of State talks of a national media literacy strategy. That is welcome. I am sure that he is aware of the SNP-led Government’s child internet safety plan, and I hope that he will co-ordinate and work closely with the Governments in Scotland and the devolved nations.
Finally, it is imperative that any new regulation or legislation addresses the funding of political advertising online. The illegal activity of the leave campaign is a dark stain on our democracy. We must ensure that our democracy is not interfered with or damaged any further. We must get this right. For the sake of the family of Molly Russell and the victims of Christchurch, we must work together across this House to ensure that social media and tech companies are properly held to account.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady, and I agree with much of what she says. She asks some good questions, which I will try to answer.
It is important that we have a regulator that is properly resourced. I said that it was our intention to ensure that the industry pays for that regulator, which is of course what one would normally expect, but whether that is predominantly through a levy or fine income is a question we have asked for views on in the course of the White Paper. We look forward to hearing what people have to say. I am open to persuasion either way, or a combination of the two might be the best way to proceed, but obviously the weight of payment must be with the industry.
The hon. Lady asks whether the regulator will have the weight of law behind it. It will. As I indicated, we will need to legislate to set up the regulator; it will need statutory underpinning. I hope that she will be supportive of that effort when we bring legislation before the House.
The hon. Lady makes a good point about online abuse of women and girls in particular. One of the reasons that I am so keen to see this process continue is that if we do not give the citizens of this country the opportunity to speak up online, to participate in the debate on what is now one of the central forums for debate, we will lose a huge number of powerful voices in the course of making our country a better place. To women —young women in particular—who feel that that is a hostile environment in which to participate in debate, we have a particular duty. I believe that the regulator will help us to fulfil that duty.
The hon. Lady mentions codes of practice. She might not yet have seen that the social media code of practice is published alongside the White Paper, so that document is now available and I hope that online companies will start to take clear account of it. The work that the Home Office will now do will specifically be in relation to child sexual abuse and to the promotion of terrorism. Because of the seriousness of the harms, we believe it is appropriate for the Home Secretary to have input into the design of the codes of practice.
Finally, the hon. Lady has my assurance that we will continue to work with the Scottish Government. I have already had a very productive conversation with her colleague in the Scottish Government, Kate Forbes. We will seek to take forward that co-operation as we develop the proposals.
I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend on producing something that clearly binds all parts of the House together. There is much to be welcomed. I want to make two quick points. First, at the heart of the problem is the business model for such businesses. Because they are so light touch and therefore bear no responsibility for what they publish, they have in a sense been able to build up companies on the cheap. Making them publishers of their content is the quickest way to achieve our No. 1 purpose, which is to break up what Adam Smith in “The Wealth of Nations” called “cartelling”. May I direct the Secretary of State, as he looks at the legal constraints, to the idea that such businesses should be responsible, as publishers are, for the content on their websites? That would radically change everything. Has he had conversations with his counterparts in the United States to see whether there is commonality of purpose in what he requests?
The argument about whether such businesses are publishers or platforms takes up a great deal of time, and not necessarily to great purpose. It is better to ask how we can keep the focus on ensuring that online platforms take responsibility for what they do. We believe that the duty of care is the right method. It will not be sustainable any longer for online companies to say, “We have no responsibility for the harms that may appear on our platforms.” They will instead be required—by law if necessary—to look at what they can do to keep their users safe in any reasonably practicable way they can. If they do not do that, they will find that the regulator imposes sanctions upon them. That seems the right way forward.
I said earlier that it is appropriate for the United Kingdom to lead on this matter, and we should be proud that we are doing so, but I hope that other countries, including the United States, will see how we are approaching common challenges that the United States faces, too, and will seek to adopt similar proposals.
Forty or 50 years ago, the tobacco industry was largely responsible for driving up cancer in our country. It took the Department of Health many years to start to regulate what was going on in the industry and deal with it on behalf of the taxpayer. It is clear from looking at some drill music and its relationship with knife crime and gang culture, and self-harm among young people, that mental ill health is being driven by much of this social media. Will the Secretary of State say something about the intersection between the Department of Health and Social Care, the chief medical officer and the new regulator?
The right hon. Gentleman makes a good point. As he will recognise, the White Paper deals with some of the harms that he mentions—serious violence and self-harm, in particular. It is right that all of government is behind the strategy. It is important that we ensure that the links between what this regulator does, what the health service does and what many other bodies within and outside Government do are sustained.
On social media, we all recognise that we cannot put the genie back in the bottle. Social media will continue to be a significant element in the lives of young people, in particular, with all the challenges to their mental health that we know it brings. Those who promote platforms for the kind of user-generated interaction that we are concerned with in this White Paper must accept that they can do something about some of the harmful material on those platforms. If they choose to do so, they will have nothing to fear from our proposals; if they choose not to, they will find that consequences follow.
I am sure many of my constituents in Truro and Falmouth will welcome these important measures. How can the Government ensure that the regulator is able to compete with the tech giants in attracting the best talent to keep pace with rapid technological change?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. It will be a challenge to ensure that the regulator employs people of sufficient experience and ability, who can get to grips with the challenges we will expect it to confront. A linked challenge is that we must determine, in the process of designing the regulator, what rules we believe there should be about the progress that employees from the industry can make to and from it. That can be argued both ways. My hon. Friend puts her finger on one of the great design challenges, and we shall pursue it with vigour.
On behalf of my party, I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement. We need regulation in this area, but regulation alone cannot address issues such as the impact on the emotional development of children and young people. Schools must be able to educate about social harm, and parents must be empowered to support their children. What will the Secretary of State do with other Departments to ensure that that sort of action takes place?
The hon. Lady is right. She has heard me refer to education—I mean that in the broadest sense—for adults, as well as for children. She will know that my right hon. Friend the Education Secretary has recently made changes to relationships education in our schools. It is important that understanding the online world—digital literacy—is a key part of the education that we give all our young people. They now cannot manage without it.
On the question of online addiction, the focus tends to be on the horrors of addiction to online gambling, but the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee is hearing evidence about the problems associated with addiction to online gaming. Will the Secretary of State give that as much attention as gambling when he looks at the legislative part of this?
I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. As he knows from the inquiries that he and his colleagues have been pursuing, there is considerable overlap between the two. We all need to turn our attention to the opportunities to engage in activity that looks very much like gambling within a gaming context.
I welcome much of what is in the White Paper, but it does not address the serious concerns that our Select Committee raised about the need for transparency in relation to political advertising and campaigning, which has been the source of much disinformation on social media. It is vital that electoral law is brought up to date as soon as possible, and the possibility of an early general election or a confirmatory referendum makes that even more urgent. Will the Secretary of State be a bit more specific and tell us when the Cabinet Office will publish its proposals?
I cannot give the hon. Lady a date today, but it is imminent. When she sees that document, she will see that it complements what the Online Harms White Paper is designed to do. There is a huge amount to be discussed in relation to the challenges that the online world brings us. If I tried to put all of them in one document, it would have become pretty unwieldly. This White Paper is designed to deal with the harms that are set out within it, and the Cabinet Office documents will, I hope, deal with many of the points that she is concerned about.
I welcome the White Paper and the fact that it has taken on board many of the recommendations of the DCMS Committee inquiry, which revealed some spine-chilling evidence about what is going on and how we are being manipulated. One of the keys is education, and I welcome the strategy for that. People need to know how vulnerable they are and how to distinguish truth from non-truth. Will the Secretary of State expand a bit more on the strategy and how we will make it effective?
As my hon. Friend says, the Select Committee helpfully focused on that area. We want the regulator to take responsibility for ensuring that more of this happens. It will, of course, be able to make use of the resources available to it to pursue education for all. We need to ensure that we do not just pursue education in a school context but give every member of our society the skills and capabilities they require to make sense of the online world. Some of that can be described in an over-technical way. Frankly, we sometimes require greater scepticism and less trust about what we see online so we can apply our critical faculties to it, but even if we do that, greater visibility is required. The point that the hon. Member for Cardiff Central (Jo Stevens) made about political advertising is right. We must ensure that we have the greatest possible visibility to add to our scepticism.
I congratulate the Secretary of State on the White Paper and on the approach he has taken. This is not about censorship; it is about encouraging responsibility. Many of the recommendations of our Select Committee reports are echoed in the White Paper. In our reports, we left the identity of the new independent regulator unspecified. There will be a consensus that we should try to build on tried and trusted structures, rather than create a new, possibly overlapping and competing public body. In that respect, I draw attention to the growing work between Ofcom, the Information Commissioner’s Office and, where necessary, law enforcement. I encourage the people who respond to the consultation and the Secretary of State, as he takes it forward, to adopt a pragmatic approach.
Yes, I will certainly do that. I am grateful for what the hon. Gentleman says about the White Paper. As he will recognise, we have said already that we think freedom of speech is one of the issues that the regulator should concern itself with. Like him, I do not believe that there is any necessary conflict between the promotion of freedom of speech and the protection of the most vulnerable members of our society from some of the most pernicious harms.
On the identity of the regulator, the hon. Gentleman is right that this could become a congested space. He will see in the White Paper that, despite the fact that, initially at least, we have asked people to tell us what they think about the two possibilities as they stand—either a new regulator or the extension of the powers of an existing regulator—we have also envisaged a somewhat more comprehensive look at the way in which the regulatory structures currently operate.
As a former journalist and broadcaster, I am used to being identified as the source of whatever I wrote, along with my colleagues, but trolling has the most appalling effect on many of our young and indeed—dare I say it—on many MPs who are subjected to it. Has my right hon. and learned Friend done anything about that, and can anything be done—I am afraid I am not an expert in this field—to end this and to identify those who put stuff online, because if they have nothing to hide, why can they not be identified?
I understand my hon. Friend’s point. Abuse and intimidation are of course covered in this White Paper, and it is important that online platforms do what they can to minimise that kind of activity. As he will recognise, harassment and intimidation can be criminal offences. Where they are or may be criminal offences, powers already exist to seek to identify those who may be responsible, and we should be making full use of them.
As chair of the all-party group on suicide and self-harm prevention, I welcome today’s online harms paper as a significant step towards protecting the most vulnerable young people, but the proof will be in the implementation, and a major challenge is that much of the damaging content is hosted outside the UK. What will the Government be doing to scale up their plans and to drive forward global change to protect young vulnerable people?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady and, indeed, the APPG for its work. I hope she will have the chance, with her colleagues, to look carefully at what we propose, respond to the consultation and give us her views.
On what the hon. Lady says about some of this content being hosted outside the UK, the important point is that companies that offer services to UK citizens will be within scope of these proposals. There is an enforcement challenge for some of the sanctions we have set out, but it is worth keeping in mind that some 85% or so of the traffic we are concerned about comes through platforms that have a significant corporate presence in the United Kingdom. That does give us a purchase on them, and it is important that we make use of it. I would also say that some of the other sanctions we are considering, including ISP blocking—although it would never be used except in the most extreme circumstances, and it does have technical challenges—would be applicable even to platforms that do not have a corporate presence in the UK.
This is a great cross-party cause. I strongly support what the Secretary of State has said about extending the duty of care to social media firms. He will know that, some time ago, I advocated something similar in relation to the extension of the duty of care on teachers and youth workers to those who are coaching or training under-18-year-olds, particularly driving instructors or sports coaches, where there are one-on-one relationships with real child-grooming risks. The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children has now taken this up as part of its “Close the Loophole” campaign. What can my right hon. and learned Friend do about this duty of care issue as well?
One of the problems is anonymity, because people seem to feel able to write on social media things that they would never think of saying to another person or that they would never write if their name was revealed. Yet I have known instances, for my constituents and for myself personally, when it has taken months and months for the police to be able to get the identity of individuals from the internet companies, even when serious violence has been threatened. When are these companies going to do something about the anonymity, make sure that state actors from elsewhere, such as Russia and China, stop interfering in our political processes in this country, and clean up their act?
On anonymity, as the hon. Gentleman has heard me say and as he recognises, there are powers available; the issue is how quickly they can be used. When we come to consider a duty of care, it seems to me and my colleagues that one of the advantages of the duty of care approach is that it should bring about a change of attitude across a whole range of activities among the online companies. It will no longer be sufficient for online companies to say, “Well, we’ve met this rule or that rule.” Instead, they must demonstrate to a regulator that they are doing all they reasonably can to keep their users safe, and that includes being safe from some of the activities the hon. Gentleman has in mind. I do not promise that any of this will be a magic bullet or that things will be transformed overnight, but I do think that the approach we are setting out will start to change the culture of these companies and start to make them think about how they meet their responsibilities more effectively.
The briefing for this statement mentions, correctly, that all five terrorist attacks in the UK during 2017 had an online element, and online terrorist content remains a feature of contemporary radicalisation. Given that some of these companies have created applications with end-to-end encryption that they claim they cannot get into themselves, let alone the security services being able to get into them, what will these measures do to prevent online harm being done through these inaccessible applications?
My right hon. Friend identifies one of the most troublesome aspects of online harm—that encryption is extraordinarily difficult for us to wrestle with. That is of course because there are advantages to encryption, and we use it all the time in our daily lives, but he is right that those who choose to use it for criminal purposes must also be challenged. In relation to this White Paper, I would say to him that harms at the top end of the seriousness spectrum, including the promotion of terrorism, will receive the greatest possible attention from the regulator, and our expectations from the Government will also be higher, hence the Home Secretary’s close interest in the way in which codes of practice are developed, so that online companies are doing their utmost to ensure that this kind of behaviour is challenged.
I thank the Secretary of State for his statement. Catfishing is the theft of a person’s identity in order to sexually exploit vulnerable people on social media platforms. Of course we must help people become more resilient in relation to online grooming, but we also need to change the behaviour of those who exploit others. Has the Secretary of State had any discussions with the Home Secretary about making catfishing a criminal offence?
I have had no specific conversation with the Home Secretary on exactly that point, although the hon. Lady will recognise, when she has a chance to look at it, that the White Paper refers specifically to catfishing. If these are offences of fraud and misrepresentation, they may already be on the statute book, so it is worth looking at what the overlaps might be. However, I will take away what she says and make sure we discuss it with our colleagues in the Home Office.
I thank the Secretary of State for this report. The recommendations are very much in line with the thoughts of the Science and Technology Committee inquiry. I am remembering last November, when 100 women MPs from 100 different countries met in this Chamber, and time and again we heard how the abuse that women politicians get is hampering them in doing their jobs and is a direct attack on democracy. They were looking to the UK to take global leadership, so I thank the Secretary of State for taking that leadership. Will he confirm that the duty of care is not censorship or curtailing freedom of the press, but that it will help to protect democracy as well as individuals?
Yes, I can confirm that. It is important to repeat that this is a process that we believe is necessary to level the playing field. These are abuses that, if they were happening in any other environment, would be controlled, and it is important that we do the same online. The point my hon. Friend makes about the abuse that female politicians have to endure very much echoes the point made by the hon. Member for Livingston (Hannah Bardell), who speaks for the Scottish National party, and she is right. Of course, it is not just politicians—female journalists and others in public life have to endure the same. It is unacceptable and it must stop.
I am pleased to see that the Secretary of State and the Home Secretary appear to have listened to many of the concerns raised by the Home Affairs Committee, including by me and the Chair, about the failure of social media companies to deal with online extremist and terrorist content. I look forward to action on that, but may I press the Secretary of State further on the integrity of our elections, our referendums and, indeed, our democracy on a day-to-day basis? Particularly in the light of the revelations in The Guardian last week about the millions in dark money that is being spent on advertising to influence votes going on at this very moment and to whip up hatred against Members of this House, does he not agree that we need action today, rather than to wait months for that to come?
I certainly hope the hon. Gentleman will not have to wait months. He raises fair concerns, and I have indicated that the Government are not blind to them. This particular White Paper does not deal with that subject, but the Government will produce very shortly a document that does.
Of course, it is not just the tech giants that are active in the digital space; it is also our local papers. The Redditch Standard and the Redditch Advertiser, for example, do a fantastic job of holding us local politicians to account. Can the Secretary of State confirm that the welcome measures in the White Paper will not affect the ability of our small local papers, which do not have a massive resource base, to do their job?
I can confirm that. We are concerned here with user-generated content, not with the activities of journalists or their editors. I would go further and say that it seems to me that the press—both local and national—and recognised journalists who do a good job of producing authoritative, sourced work are part of the solution, not part of the problem, particularly to the disinformation that has been identified across the House as one of the fundamental harms we are concerned about.
I am grateful for advance sight of the statement. I welcome the principles of the White Paper, and particularly the establishment of a statutory duty of care to users, but I note the proposal for codes of practice that are not compulsory. Is there not a risk that companies will be allowed to fulfil the duty of care as they see fit? How will the effectiveness of the alternative approaches that companies are allowed to take be evaluated, and how will the regulator sanction companies that fail to abide by their own policies?
I think there are two points worth making in response to the right hon. Lady. First, how well the platforms hold to their own terms and conditions may well give the regulator a good indication of how well they are complying with their overarching duty of care. Secondly, she is right that the White Paper envisages that a platform might say to a regulator, “We don’t wish to follow the codes of practice,” but if a platform chooses that path, it must be able to demonstrate to the regulator that the approach it takes instead is at least as effective in dealing with online harms as the codes of practice would have been. Of course, if the platform did not succeed in persuading the regulator that it had done that, the overarching duty of care would continue to apply to it. The duty does not rely on the codes of practice for its ongoing effectiveness.
Like many families in south Somerset, I have been concerned about what exposure my children might have to various things online, so I welcome the look that is being taken at this issue. What are we going to do to try to stay ahead of new technologies that are able very efficiently to impersonate so that we can take action in advance? Are we looking at revising the legal framework around harassment and malicious communications to take account of that?
The answer to my hon. Friend’s second question is yes. The Law Commission is looking now at exactly how we may refresh the law on online harassment. On his first question, I think he refers to what are commonly described as deepfakes, which are technologically very challenging. As I said earlier, it is important that the process we suggest encourages online platforms to use technology to provide solutions as well as to recognise problems. We expect that, as technology develops to create deepfakes, so should technology develop to help identify them. This duty of care will put the onus on online platforms to do just that.
I welcome the White Paper, but I warn the Secretary of State that he has a big, tough fight on his hands. These people are wealthy, they are well organised and they will fight back. They also have interfaces. I learned about this kind of danger in 2012, when Issenberg wrote “The Victory Lab”. He predicted much of what was going to happen in politics, but at that time the offline was solely influencing the online, so the data manipulation models were coming from financial institutions—particularly the banks. Will the Secretary of State look broadly at what is going on? Yes, some of it is online, but it has real links with data collectors in other sectors.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his support. He makes a fair point. He is of course right that there will be opposition to what is proposed, but it is worth noting that online companies, including Facebook, have recognised that forms of regulation are inevitable, and we shall expect them to co-operate in the design of these processes. If they choose not to, they will find that we shall regulate anyway.
Over the past 20 years, the thrust of children’s legislation has been to place a duty on public agencies to co-operate in the protection and safeguarding of vulnerable children, yet no such duty exists for social media companies. In that time, social media companies, using complicated algorithms, have become exceedingly skilful at trying to persuade me that I need to buy essential products that I never knew I could not live without. Will the duty of care require those companies proactively to use algorithms and artificial intelligence not only to block harmful sites in the first place, but to flag up vulnerable users who search for terms such as “kill myself” and clearly harmful websites so they are detected and helped?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He is right that we should be particularly concerned with the most vulnerable in our society—especially children. The way we envisage the duty of care operating is that online companies should do all they reasonably can to keep their users safe. The greater the user’s vulnerability, the more care they should take to do so. It follows that, in relation to children who may be using those services—of course, this will apply particularly to services that are attractive to children—there will be a greater onus on those responsible to act. We want to see a regulator pay close attention to what has been done—proactively, not simply reactively—to ensure that that harm can be avoided, whether by the use of algorithms or by other methods. The onus will be very clearly on those who provide the service to satisfy the regulator that they are doing all they can. If they are not, the consequences I described earlier can follow.
I, too, congratulate the Secretary of State on bringing forward the White Paper. It is certainly a step in the right direction. However, I echo the disappointment that a number of my colleagues have expressed about its relationship with the electoral reform process, and particularly the issue of political disinformation, which is penetrating social media so avidly. The Secretary of State mentioned that cultural change is needed. Does he have a sense of optimism about that from his conversations and dealings with social media platforms? If his optimism is limited, what pressure does he hope to apply with international partners?
The straight answer to the hon. Lady’s question about my level of optimism is that it is limited but it exists. It is probably necessary for us all to recognise that the online companies are making progress in the right direction, but not fast enough. We need to take action ourselves to ensure that the proper protections are in place for our citizens. As she says, we need a cultural change. We in the United Kingdom have every reason to act first and to be proud of doing so, but we must ensure—we certainly intend to do so—that we explain to our international colleagues the way we are approaching this, in the expectation and hope that, as they face similar challenges, they will want to take note of the way we have approached these subjects and approach them in a very similar way. I reassure her that the international conversation will continue.
As a parent, I of course want my children to be safe on the web, but as a civil libertarian, I want to ensure free speech. The Secretary of State spoke about the need to be sceptical and about challenging the perceived truth. People do not trust Governments, for very good reasons. With 194 other jurisdictions around the world, how does he envisage that important balance being struck through this White Paper?
I agree with my hon. Friend that that is indeed the balance to be struck. I hope that I can reassure him that it is our intention to do so and that we believe that free speech and safety online are not mutually exclusive. We can do both; we must do both. That is what the White Paper intends to do. As he says, it simply would not be right for Government to seek to determine the answers to the questions that we are concerned with. There must be an independent regulator to do so. It must be properly funded and must be properly robust in the opportunities that it has to hold online companies to account.
Having spent 20 years in the tech industry, I can say categorically that the harms that the White Paper begins to address were well identified five or even 10 years ago, but it does nothing to address the growing harms associated with algorithms, artificial intelligence, the internet of things and data dominance. The Secretary of State says that other Departments or consultations will address them but, like the world we live in, those harms are all interconnected. Why is the Secretary of State allowing a piecemeal, ad hoc and at times knee-jerk legislative framework to develop, when what we need is a comprehensive, cross-departmental, evidence-based, forward-looking review of digital rights and responsibilities, so that we can have a regulatory framework fit for the future?
I do not wish to damage the atmosphere of consensus that has helpfully emerged this afternoon, but I have to say that I think that the hon. Lady is completely wrong. What we have set out is exactly designed to deal with the problem that she has identified: that if we are reactive—if we chase harms that emerged some time ago and do not think about harms that are yet to emerge—we will indeed miss the point. However, that is exactly what a duty of care is designed to do. Those who are subject to a duty of care will be obliged not just to look at the harms that they already know about, but to scan the horizon. If they see a harm coming and choose to do nothing about it, they will be answerable for that failure. That is exactly one of the advantages of the duty of care model.
May I congratulate the Secretary of State, the digital Minister and all stakeholders on the development of an excellent White Paper? Not surprisingly, already there have been some criticisms of the potential impact on freedom of speech, but does the Secretary of State agree that there is a world of difference between online banter and abuse and harassment, between expressing an opinion and promulgating disinformation, and between expressing a belief and spreading hatred and terrorist propaganda? In order to ensure that everyone understands those differences, in particular our children, will some of the money raised through a digital levy or similar be used to finance education and awareness?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for what he says and, if I may say so, his help and his contribution during his time in the Department. I am privileged to lead in developing this piece of work; he deserves a share of the credit too, and he is right. This is not a challenge to freedom of speech. As we were discussing earlier, if we do not make the online environment safer for everyone, whoever they are, we will be damaging freedom of speech, not enhancing it. It is important that we all recognise that this is a proposal to apply the same levels of activity, control and restriction to the online world that already exist everywhere else. Our freedom of speech thrives well in this place and elsewhere within the confines of the law. The same will be true online.
In relation to my hon. Friend’s point about education and how it might be funded, it will of course be open to the regulator—we will encourage it to consider this—to spend some of its revenue on education, which we think is a key component of the White Paper.
A vast number and variety of forms of behaviour that are quite properly illegal offline are entirely legal or unregulated online, which effectively makes parts of the internet a kind of lawless wild west, from fake cures for cancer to fake news and the bots that make it, and from harvesting of personal data to its unfettered exploitation for commercial gain. Does the Secretary of State agree that the entire online world needs a thorough review and is well overdue for regulation, so that it is put on a sure legal footing to take us into the future? Will he commit to looking at the full range of online harms?
The hon. Lady will see that there is a fairly extensive list of online harms in the White Paper already, and we do not regard it as exhaustive. As she heard me say to the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah), we think it is important that the process should be able to deal with new harms as they emerge. However, she will recognise that it is important to ensure that we preserve what is good and special about the internet—the capacity for people to come up with new ideas, to have discussion and to have a free flow and exchange—while ensuring that the harms that she rightly points to are controlled. That is exactly what the White Paper seeks to do. We do not, as I have said, believe that everything in it will yet be perfect, but it is important that she and others contribute to the process over the next period of consultation and make it better.
I very much welcome the statement, but returning to the earlier question from my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith), does the Secretary of State accept that if we are not clear about the extent to which the new duty of care impacts on the issue of publisher versus platform, the courts will make that interpretation for us?
Harking back to a former life, in my experience there is always a risk of court involvement, but we should seek to be as clear as possible about the responsibilities of online companies. Whatever we choose to call them—platform, publisher or something else—it is their responsibilities and what they are engaged in doing that matter. That is what we are seeking to achieve, and once we have defined that with clarity, the necessary powers will need to be available to a regulator to deal with when that does not happen.
This is an important White Paper; greater online regulation is long overdue. As the Secretary of State said, over 8,000 sexual offences against children with an online element were reported in 2017, and the tragic massacre in New Zealand showed just how quickly illegal, terrorist and extreme content can spread, so is publication by the Home Office of interim codes of practice for terrorist content and online abuse later this year soon enough or strong enough?
We think it is important to get those codes of practice right; therefore, it would not be feasible to produce them overnight. However, the hon. Lady makes a fair point, which is that we should not be waiting for these measures to be taken to see an improvement in the behaviour of online platforms. Online companies will be able to see the nature of the regulation that will come—they will also hear from this Chamber the support that exists for this kind of approach—so they will need to start to change their behaviour now. That is because when a regulator starts its work, it will want to know not just whether the online company has behaved itself for a week but for how long it has had in place the practices and procedures that we and the regulator will expect to show that it is doing its best to keep its users safe from harm.
Mandy Rose Jones, who founded the Empowered Woman Project, has been campaigning against online advertising of harmful rapid weight loss products, which are often given legitimacy when they are endorsed by celebrities and Instagram influencers. Will that be covered by the UK Government’s proposals?
The hon. Lady will recognise that there are a number of ways in which we might approach the problem that she describes, but the process that we are looking at relates to user-generated content, not necessarily commercial activities. I will have a look at what she says and perhaps write to her about how we might expect the White Paper to help.
The Offensive Weapons Public Bill Committee heard that some weapons that cannot lawfully be sold in the UK can readily be bought online on platforms such as eBay and Amazon. The Minister, in answering that debate, referred to the forthcoming White Paper. How will the proposals tackle this particular online harm?
The right hon. Gentleman will see among the list of harms exactly this type of activity. It is important that we place the obligation on those who operate online platforms to take their responsibilities seriously. I stress that we are predominantly interested in user-generated content, not so much the sales platforms, but he will see what is said in the White Paper. We will be grateful for his input on where he thinks we might develop ideas. I hope he will choose to respond to the consultation accordingly.
The Secretary of State might be aware that I have been meeting the Minister for suicide prevention, the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, the hon. Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price), to discuss my deep concern and upset over the rising number of suicides in my constituency. Just last week, there were thousands of posts under the hashtag “suicide” on Instagram. What can the White Paper do to address that?
The hon. Lady makes a very important point. She will see in the White Paper that we think the prohibition of material that promotes suicide is exactly something that the online platforms should concern themselves with. They need to think why it is that in some cases when people enter certain search terms what comes up is material promoting suicide, rather than advice and guidance on what could be done to help. That is exactly the kind of action we will expect online companies to take. If they do not, it will be hard for them to persuade the regulator that they are doing all they reasonably can to keep their users safe.
My hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) made a very important point about the damaging effect anonymity and pseudonyms can have on social media platforms, particularly social media monopolies such as Twitter and Facebook. However, the Secretary of State was quite vague in his response and seemed to hope more than expect that their policies might change. What consultations has he had with the police on how policies and enforcement need to change to tackle the damage caused by anonymous trolls effectively and efficiently?
There is no vagueness here. We know what we are dealing with, and both the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) have identified the issue. It is not a lack of powers; it is how quickly those powers can be used. I can assure him that the Government are already in conversation with the law enforcement authorities and the online platforms about how that can be done more quickly.
I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and for his personal commitment to change, which is very obvious to this House. The number of children contacting ChildLine in the past year rose by 30%, due in large part to anxiety caused by cyber-bullying and the pressure of social media. Does the Secretary of State agree that we need to target this specific area of online harm, and how does he intend to do that?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman because he gives me a chance to pay tribute to ChildLine. I was at its London centre last week. Those who volunteer and those who work for it professionally do remarkable work to help our young people deal with some of the challenges of our modern existence. He is right that cyber-bullying is particularly pernicious; it does not go away and it happens to young people whether they are at school or not. It is having a serious effect on their mental health. I hope that he will see in the White Paper, and what will follow it, a clear commitment to say to online platforms that they must do all they can to protect users from this kind of abuse. We do not expect anything unreasonable and we do not expect anything impossible, but where they can address this issue they must.
Last week, the Minister for Security and Economic Crime informed the Defence Committee that 43% of the terrorist threat in the UK currently comes from far-right groups who find each other on the internet and meet in enclosed chat rooms in encrypted space. They then come on to the internet to spread fear and intimidation among people who are tackling and pushing back against their activities. Will the Secretary of State talk to the Security Minister to ensure that the proposed legislation is able to deal with the threat from the far right?
This is as much about morality as it is about technology. As the digital and physical worlds get ever closer and more blurred, it is important that we have consistency right across the board. I am sure we can all agree that the vast majority of issues we are talking about should have no place online or in the real world, but what about the issues on which there is a difference of opinion? Who will be the arbiter, and what role will this place have in discussing whether the threshold of harm has been met?
I hope this House will have a role not just in holding the regulator to account but in the design of codes of practice. We will consult on, among other things, how that might be done. We look forward to the hon. Gentleman’s contribution to that process. It is of course worth saying—the hon. Gentleman and others have expressed a concern—how judgments on individual pieces of content might be made. It is much more likely, in my view, that the regulator will be deciding whether or not the systems that an online platform puts in place are adequate or not in protecting their users from harm, than it is that the online regulator will be making a judgment on individual pieces of content. One only has to think about the sheer volume of material being considered to realise how impractical it would be for the online regulator to decide in each and every instance. So this is really about whether online companies have in place systems to keep their users safe in the majority of cases. The regulator will have to determine that when it looks into the matter and speaks to online companies individually.
The Secretary of State mentioned the Furman review earlier. The White Paper references it, but does not take a view on some of its recommendations. Does the Secretary of State agree that getting more control for individuals over their personal data, so that they control where it is stored, would alter the balance of power between individuals and tech companies? That would have a range of benefits, including tackling internet harms.
The hon. Gentleman will recognise, because he is a fair man, that the Furman review was produced only in the past few weeks, and it is important that the Government take the time to look properly at its conclusions. He is right, however, that one of the significant aspects that Professor Furman and his panel picked up on was the potential advantage of users having more control over their data and the impact that that might have on the competition questions he was concerning himself with. The hon. Gentleman has my assurance that we will look carefully at the recommendations and respond to them fully.
I thank the Secretary of State for an excellent White Paper. I am extremely pleased that a regulator will be taking things forward. Only last week, an individual pled guilty to sending me threatening messages which have had a grave impact on me and my family. What became difficult was understanding the extent of the abuse, because a victim is blocked very quickly and pages are closed down. What more can be done to allow the police to access closed pages and blocked accounts?
I am very sorry to hear about what has happened to the hon. Lady. As she knows and as others have said, she is sadly not alone. It is important that we consider what online platforms can do. As I have said, closed groups and encrypted communications are a particular challenge. None the less, we think that online companies should do everything they can, with the restrictions that apply to encrypted communications, to keep their users as safe as they possibly can. The regulator will be entitled to ask, as it is entitled to ask in relation to other matters, whether the platform really is doing everything it could. If it is not, there will be consequences.
I was delighted when I got to page 26 of the White Paper to read the phrase “designed addiction”. My heart sank, however, when I got to “future action” and it talked about setting:
“the right expectations of companies to design their products in safe ways”
“set clear expectations for companies to prevent harm to their users.”
If we have recognised designed addiction, has the time not come to legislate and stop those companies?
When I visited the west coast to discuss these matters with a number of online companies, I had the privilege of meeting the inventor of the infinite scroll. He was, I am pleased to report, suitably apologetic. The hon. Gentleman is right. There are a certain number of technological responses that we might expect online platforms to adopt to deal with some of the harms we will expect them to tackle. As I have said, that will be a significant part of what the regulator should do to encourage those technological developments and ensure they are widely implemented.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s paper; I would argue that it is long overdue. He may be aware that last week, and three weeks ago, I launched a report by the all-party parliamentary group on social media and young people’s mental health and wellbeing. The report was about social media and its impact on young people. Many of its recommendations are in the White Paper, and I genuinely welcome that. One that is not is a 0.5% levy on social media companies’ profits, which could go into a social media health alliance. One thing that we heard during our inquiry from clinicians and young people was that we needed far more research into the impact of social media on mental health. Many individual areas of research need to be collated so that we can educate, inform and protect our young people as technology advances.
I agree, and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his work and that of his colleagues. I hope that the House recognises that within the White Paper there are contributions from a large number of Members of the House. That is as it should be, because this is a shared challenge that we must address together. I agree with the hon. Gentleman on research. It is important that we understand these problems properly, and we will do all that we can to encourage that research to take place.