Freedom of Expression (Communications and Digital Committee Report) - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords am 3:36 pm ar 27 Hydref 2022.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Baroness O'Neill of Bengarve Baroness O'Neill of Bengarve Crossbench 3:36, 27 Hydref 2022

My Lords, this is a rich, detailed and informative report, yet one underlying issue has perhaps gone to the margins: the focus on freedom of expression. Nowadays, we often use the term “freedom of expression” as though it were a synonym for freedom of speech. I note that communication involves two parties—not merely those who express themselves, the originators, but the recipients. This shift has been a feature of 20th-century discussions. When we shifted human rights documents to focus on freedom of expression rather than free speech, perhaps we did not notice that this marginalises the position of recipients and privileges originators. In short, there is a difference between expression and communication. Freedom of expression is not enough for a democratic culture in which free communication is respected and required.

As we well know, new communications technologies have often fundamentally disrupted communication. We can think all the way back to what Plato tells us of Socrates writing about writing, to realise how old this is. Similar things happened with the advent of printing and then, of course, of broadcasting. The remedies were often extremely slow, which is a salutary lesson for us in contemplating the recommendations of this report. How fast could it be done? How much of a change would it achieve?

This time, as I mentioned, we have new technologies that privilege the originators and expand their freedom of expression—at least in theory. That is no bad thing, but it might leave the recipients in a problematic position, receiving content from they know not where or whom. That is where the problem begins: we do not who the originators of this communication are. Very often, this is a source of difficulty.

Unsurprisingly, some norms and standards that have mattered greatly for communication will be ignored if we are thinking mainly about freedom of expression. Norms that can be ignored might include—this is just a smattering; there are many others—honesty, accuracy, civility, reliability and respect for evidence. I could go on. Noble Lords will note that they are not only ethical but epistemic norms. These are the bedrock of good communication.

So, stressing the rights of originators too much is likely to land us with some difficulty. Digital communication empowers originators, and this can be at the expense of recipients. Let us remember that some of the originators are not you, me and our fellow citizens seeking to express ourselves, but tech companies, data brokers and other actors in the digital space who relish the thought that they have freedom of expression, because it enables them to do things they perhaps ought not to do.

It follows that remedying the situation will be multiply difficult and probably slow, but the one thing it must not be is a set of remedies that protect originators at the expense of recipients. Remedies must concentrate on removing the cloak of anonymity that currently protects so many originators and ensuring that what they do can be seen to be something they did. That means removing anonymity from the tech companies, the data brokers and indeed the many other sources that are polluting communication at present.

I suppose that this empowers some originators, but I doubt whether concentrating on those will get us there. The important thing is to regulate data brokers, tech companies, Governments and cartels: those who pollute the online space.