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Online Safety

Volume 796: debated on Tuesday 26 February 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty's Government what action they are taking, in the light of concerns over child bullying and suicide arising from online activity, to strengthen controls over internet providers.

My Lords, the Government have been clear that more needs to be done to tackle online harms, including cyber-bullying and suicide and self-harm content, and that the internet companies have a responsibility to their users. The forthcoming White Paper on online harms will set out a range of legislative and non-legislative measures to keep UK users safe online.

I thank the Minister for that helpful response. As he said, we are constantly bombarded with stories of suicide, self-harm and bullying on the internet. What can the Government do to co-ordinate efforts to combat such activity online? In doing so, are parents and children involved in discussions on co-ordinating initiatives? Do the Government recognise the importance of not only protecting but empowering children to be resilient and aware of the danger of the internet so that these terrible things do not happen?

Obviously, I completely agree about the importance of this subject. There is a growing realisation that despite what the big social media companies say they are doing, it is not enough. Hardly anything is more important than protecting children. We support an open and free internet—we think that it is good for the economy, human rights and free speech—but we acknowledge that the Government have a duty to make sure that social media and big tech companies are held to account. We will put out the online harms White Paper to do that. On involving young people in discussions and increasing their resilience, my noble friend Lord Agnew introduced what the Department for Education is doing for relationships education, sex education and health education in secondary schools. The proposed guidance and regulations cover subjects such as how to stay safe online, critically considering information and how people present themselves online, rights and responsibilities, how data is gathered, shared and used, the benefits of balancing time spent online and other important areas, such as consent.

My Lords, an NSPCC survey found that six out of 10 parents do not think that social networks protect children from inappropriate content, such as self-harm and suicide. Nine out of 10 parents support the regulation of social networks to make them legally responsible for protecting children because, unfortunately, many parents lack the knowledge and confidence to protect their children effectively from online threats. What are the Government doing to encourage and improve digital literacy, especially among parents? Will the Government consider introducing age verification on social media sites as soon as possible to keep our children safe?

I do not want to give anything away but the noble Baroness has set out many of the reasons for bringing forward the White Paper. I agree with how the public feel. It is a question of building trust in these big companies if the benefits are to continue. We will cover education in the White Paper—that has already been talked about—including for parents. The UK Council for Internet Safety has already developed a framework to equip children and young people for digital life and a practical guide for parents, but we will see more on that subject in the White Paper.

My Lords, the White Paper has been amply referred to; we all look forward to it. I was at a seminar led by the Secretary of State the other day, where he made very high claims for it. He said that things have never been done like this before—that is, in a way that will have an impact on the whole world of IT. He set his standards very high indeed so we will be watching to see whether the proposals match his great statements. I worry that whatever we propose from within our own geography, not just on social media but on global social media, will depend on similar responses from other parts of the world. We have an international treaty to limit nuclear weapons. Knowing what we now know, is it not time that we started an initiative to bring the international community on board and into the conversation, recognising that this is a universal problem that needs a global response?

I agree, which is why we are already consulting with our international partners. There are different views of how the internet should be taken forward, but for child protection and the more egregious things that social media companies do, there is an issue of internationalism, not least how regulations are enforced. That is something we are considering, and one of the benefits of doing it in the traditional way of having a Green Paper, a White Paper and then legislation is that we will continue to have consultation with noble Lords, which we are prepared to listen to. We will set out the views of where we think we are going, but we are open to consultation as well.

My Lords, instead of simply—and importantly—mitigating the harms done on the internet, might we consider a step change about designing the whole thing differently? Does the Minister agree that, instead of thinking about Facebook, Twitter and the like as platforms, if we thought about them as public spaces, required to have a duty of care like any other public space and be regulated accordingly, we would find ourselves in a different place? Is this something the Government are considering?

My Lords, I welcome the response that Matt Hancock has given to the father of 14 year-old Molly Russell, who took her life in 2017, having visited one of these suicide sites. That was a year in which the suicide rate among young females increased by 38%. As long ago as 7 December 2006, I asked the Government to amend the Suicide Act 1961 to enable the,

“banning of internet sites which may incite people to, or advise people on how to, commit suicide”.—[Official Report, 7/12/2006; col. WA 157.]

This is an issue I have raised on a dozen occasions since then, along with the noble Baroness, Lady Massey. While I welcome the White Paper and legislation, will the Minister confirm that this is an urgent issue, which ought to be dealt with as expeditiously as possible?

I agree that it is extremely important; we should expect social media companies to have responsibility, and we should hold them to account. The Secretary of State for Health and Social Care has met social media companies, and written to them on this issue. He had a round table on 7 February to discuss what more can be done, and his department will be hosting a follow-up round table in two months to review progress, so they are taking it seriously. In addition, bearing in mind what the right reverend Prelate said, we are thinking about those issues, as the noble Lord will see when the White Paper comes out.