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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords am 3:41 pm ar 27 Hydref 2022.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Baroness Stowell of Beeston Baroness Stowell of Beeston Chair, Communications and Digital Committee, Chair, Communications and Digital Committee 3:41, 27 Hydref 2022

It is an honour to follow such a respected philosopher as the noble Baroness. Indeed, it was a privilege to join the committee under my noble friend Lord Gilbert’s excellent chairmanship, but that was not until after the inquiry was completed, so I cannot claim any input into this excellent report.

In January this year, I took on the daunting challenge of succeeding my noble friend as chair and maintaining the committee’s reputation for undertaking inquiries of relevance and impact. Clearly, I endorse the conclusions and recommendations of the committee’s report. I believe in freedom of speech—online or in the real world—and welcome the Government’s decision to look again at the most contentious element of the Online Safety Bill—which my noble friend has already referred to—which threatens to undermine that. But, like everyone else, I also care deeply about the protection of children from harm, and my concerns have only been reinforced by the recent inquest into the tragic death of Molly Russell.

Doing nothing when it comes to regulating the internet is not an option I would consider acceptable. The Communications and Digital Committee will reconsider the Online Safety Bill once the Government have announced how they plan to change it before it reaches your Lordships’ House. I am not going to comment further on the freedom of speech aspects of the committee’s report today. Instead, I want to emphasise the importance of the other half of the regulatory equation to which the Government, frustratingly, have not so far attached equal priority, even though, as my noble friend has said, it is just as important if we are to have a safe as well as economically healthy online world: legislating to tackle the dominance and overwhelming power of the big tech firms by allowing much-needed competition to them.

Chapter 4 of the committee’s report sets out most powerfully the case and urgent need for the Digital Markets Unit, which is part of the Competition and Markets Authority, to be put on a statutory footing and given ex-ante powers to intervene more effectively in these markets. My noble friend already referred to one of the key conclusions in chapter 4, which is about these platforms not being allowed to monopolise the digital public square. The report also recommends that the DMU should, where necessary,

“block mergers and acquisitions which would undermine competition.”

Earlier this year, determined to continue the good work started by my noble friend, the committee held accountability sessions with the Government and the CMA to maintain the pressure for action, including calling on the CMA to use its existing powers to their very limit while waiting for these long-promised and much-needed new powers. Since then, and to its credit, the CMA has been doing that, as evidenced by its recent ruling against Meta’s acquisition of Giphy—the GIFs that are used in tweets and different forms of social messaging. Noble Lords and others might shrug their shoulders and wonder, “So what? What’s the benefit of that?” Well, let me explain.

Had this acquisition been allowed to continue, Meta would have been able to increase its market power by denying or limiting other social media platforms’ access to these GIFs, thereby pushing people to Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, which already make up 73% of user time spent on social media in the UK—or it would have been able to change the terms of access to Giphy GIFs, requiring Twitter, TikTok and Snapchat to provide Meta with more data from UK users in return for their access. Disentangling Giphy from Meta will now be a slow and costly operation and a lot of the anti-competition damage will already have been done, but if the DMU had had ex-ante powers it would have been able to prevent the acquisition, or at least the integration, of the business until it had carried out its work.

The internet and the big tech firms have revolutionised our world, and they deserve huge credit for their innovation and the risks they have taken to make a success of their businesses and create opportunities for so many others. But we cannot ignore the damage they cause socially and economically because of the control and power they hold. This threat will only grow if there are no limits to their dominance and everyone else is forced to rely on them, whether as individuals, businesses or even nation states.

It cannot be right that a handful of powerful individuals or corporate entities with no democratic mandate can influence and shape our society and affect our social norms. We need to ensure that the Online Safety Bill does not inadvertently exacerbate that threat, and we need to accept that we will need to keep evolving regulation in this area. But the Government also need to recognise that, on their own, online safety legislation is not enough, and they must bring forward with equal if not more urgency the digital competition Bill. When my noble friend comes to wind up, could he explain why the Government have, so far, failed to recognise this? Could he also tell us what plans the Government have to bring forward this necessary legislation as soon as possible?