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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords am 4:18 pm ar 27 Hydref 2022.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Baroness Featherstone Baroness Featherstone Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol 4:18, 27 Hydref 2022

My Lords, I too sat on the committee under the excellent chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Gilbert, and now under the excellent chairmanship of the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell.

The power to amplify, together with the volume and speed of the internet, have put power in the hands of individuals, organisations and tech companies, for better or worse. Now, we are seeking to control the worse, but as we do so I counsel that we remember that the internet has given us the most extraordinary communication tool for ideas, for gathering others to our cause and for getting information around the world quickly, as well as avenues for those in countries that do not have the miracle of free speech, because their media are state-controlled, to contact the outside world. So, getting the balance right between freedom of speech and the need to qualify it is a very important task. Of course, what is illegal offline is illegal online: that is the easy bit and I guess that is where my preference lies, with very few exceptions.

As the noble Lord, Lord Gilbert, said, I want maximum controls in my own home. Put power in my hands—if I do not want to receive anonymous messages, I should be able to tap my screen and they should never bother me again. However, primarily, I want companies to be responsible for policing their content and Ofcom to regulate and act when companies do not comply with their codes. I would hope that that would be enough, as it has worked pretty successfully in broadcast and publication to date, but clearly the world has changed and we are in different territory. If something is likely to cause real, serious harm online, then, as the noble Lord, Lord Gilbert, said, it should be made illegal.

However, as we are to legislate against less obviously harmful content, let us have a very short list of what will qualify. I saw the list on priority content that was published. The list is not unreasonable; the unreasonable part is putting any such power into the hands of the Secretary of State and not Parliament as a whole. We cannot give the state control over our media.

Overarchingly, we must leave room for adults to make their own decisions. We do not have to view what we do not want to see. We need to be careful in any legislative fervour to guard against authoritarian creep, where the prohibition against what is truly harmful oversteps into a world where we are to be protected from absolutely anything we do not like or agree with—or worse, that the Government do not like or agree with. That is really dangerous territory.

Free speech is one of the most precious of all human rights. It is the foundation of a democratic, open society. I am concerned that we are already seeing authoritarian creep in things we have taken for granted for years, such as some curtailments on the right to protest. It has always been recognised that the right of people to criticise Governments, laws and social conditions is fundamental to democracy. Of course, free speech presents great challenges—that is the point—but from Socrates on, the very best way to challenge ideas you disagree with has been to confront them by marshalling better ethics, reasoning and evidence. I worry that we have become risk-averse to a degree where we are disabling ourselves.

When we bring in the Online Safety Bill, we must guard against disabling future generations by overprotecting them from the realities of our existence. Civilisation is only skin deep; we need to be able to think, counter arguments and fight back with strength of mind. Life is dangerous and ideas can be challenging. With too much protection, we will create an inability to build resilience. Jonathan Haidt, the American social psychologist, cites the immune system: if you do not expose a human to various viruses or allergens, their immune system will not develop. We require a degree of exposure to stress to enable us to develop strength.

If we spend time only with people who agree with us, are like us or think like us—this is happening, as society is disaggregating into groups of the like-minded—we will be on a very dangerous road. Continuing to divide ourselves and narrow our circles to people, media or groups who agree with us is reductionist. It leaves us weak, suspicious and scared of the different. I am not fond of the term “snowflake”, because I think being sensitive to peoples’ feelings and sensitivities is a good thing. I disagree with the noble Baroness, Lady Fox; I think trigger warnings are fine—they are just putting the power in your hands.

Anthony Kapel “Van” Jones, an American news and political commentator, author and lawyer said:

“I don’t want you to be safe, ideologically … I want you to be strong.”

If we eradicate words, ideas and subjects that cause discomfort or give offence, we weaken ourselves. I am worried that power will be held too close to the state. We must sort out the chaff from the wheat but, more than that, we must not submit our intellect and freedoms to the mob.