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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords am 4:46 pm ar 27 Hydref 2022.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Baroness Merron Baroness Merron Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Health and Social Care), Shadow Spokesperson (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) 4:46, 27 Hydref 2022

My Lords, I, too, am most grateful to the Communications and Digital Committee for its work in this area, and particularly thank its chair, the noble Lord, Lord Gilbert, for his work in that role. I also wish the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, well in taking up the role. It seems an appropriate moment to call on the words of my noble friend Lord Griffiths, who talked about the need for the wisdom of Solomon in this report. I hope the noble Baroness finds that she too has the wisdom of Solomon, because this debate has shown us the need for that.

The contributions to this thoughtful debate today have shown the considerable tensions between protection from harms and privacy on the one hand, but also the great need to embrace the ever-developing and changing opportunities that the digital age brings us. This report has given your Lordships’ House a great opportunity today—albeit some time after the event—to consider a very important matter of our time, which is so deeply affecting so many different aspects of our lives. I am minded to recall that, in the course of a previous debate which I know a number of noble Lords present today took part in, the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury wisely observed, when we were looking at the contemporary challenges to freedom of speech, that it is not just about having frank speech, it is about having fitting speech. As we discussed today, we are speaking about freedom of expression, and that, too, must be fitting.

The right to freedom of expression is absolutely balanced by the responsibilities held by government, media, technology and citizens. It is not an unrestricted right, and it is subject to legal limits. For example, while the UN General Assembly recognised all the way back in December 1948 that freedom of expression was a fundamental right to be universally protected, subsequent international agreements have recognised that there can and should be limits to this right.

Of course, the right to freedom of expression is already subject to a range of restrictions in law in this country, but, as noble Lords have said, we must align the legislation, the regulation, with the reality, and we must keep pace. As the noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill, said, the question of the balance of consideration between originators and recipients is a very important one. In particular, the cloak of anonymity worn by some originators cannot be used as a way to damage recipients.

This report highlights the very difficult balancing act which is faced by policymakers, and there is a significant body of evidence which demonstrates the types of harm witnessed online—but we must ensure that freedom of expression is not unfairly curtailed. In addition, as the noble Viscount, Lord Colville, said, we must also remember that it is important that we retain and develop a position as a digital world leader.

This report helpfully acknowledges that various regulators have roles in relation to different forms of online activity, but it also identifies concerns about the lack of overarching regulation covering social media and search services in the UK. Of course, unsurprisingly, many noble Lords have referred to the Online Safety Bill and the various delays to its progress through Parliament, and to the Government’s recent attempts to rewrite parts of it. Of course, it has been some time since the committee’s report and the Government’s response, and since the Joint Committee published its various recommendations for changing the draft legislation.

In the intervening period—and I say this with a certain concern that it may change—at the current tally we have seen three Prime Ministers, three Secretaries of State and three Lords Ministers, plus an assortment of junior Ministers in the Commons. The Bill has changed a lot, but the fundamental tension highlighted by this report remains that, for some, regulation on big tech firms cannot ever be strong enough, while for others any regulation is seen as anti-business, anti-free speech wokism.

So we look forward to welcoming the Bill to the Lords—I hope it will be soon. I hope that the Minister can give that assurance today, because I have no doubt that we will consider many of the issues raised by the committee during our deliberations, which I am sure will take a considerable amount of time.

We support the agenda to tackle online harms and much of what is in the Online Safety Bill. It is by no means perfect, but it would represent a significant step forward for the majority of internet users. The repeated delays to bring in important new safeguards have undoubtedly been disappointing. We are keen to get the legislation on to the statute book, but, as noble Lords today have again said, and as we said in the Chamber this week, the continued failure to act on age verification, which goes back many years, is really something that the Government should have put right. As the noble Lord, Lord Londesborough, rightly said, the Government have indeed failed to act when they could have. The tragic death of Molly Russell stands as a reminder to us all of the need to act, and to act swiftly.

Given the recent change in Administration, can the Minister confirm whether the Government intend to introduce any further changes to the Bill beyond those already published? Might some of the changes be welcomed by the committee? When might we see the Bill?

As other noble Lords have chosen to focus on specific recommendations, I will refer to the importance of improving users’ media literacy skills. One of the recommendations of the committee is that platforms should not be arbiters of the truth. The noble Baroness, Lady Featherstone, spoke of putting the power in our hands, but the ability to question and to interrogate is a crucial weapon in this.

The previous Minister and I had a number of exchanges on this important issue, but I remain unconvinced by the Government’s argument that the current duties on Ofcom are sufficient. There is indeed a strategy, but it is hard to see how that and the various education campaigns run by platforms are having the desired effect. We have seen the harms of disinformation and misinformation in recent years, particularly in regard to Covid vaccines. If the current approach to media literacy was working, those conspiracy theories would not have been as prevalent as they were.

Improving media literacy undermines those who spread misinformation—and that is what we need to do, because the best way to combat fake news is to teach people how to identify it. So could the Minister offer some comment on his view of the effectiveness of the various steps that have been taken or identified to be taken? Are they working and what still needs to be done?

We are of course this afternoon not going to solve all the issues the committee has raised, but this has been an extremely helpful holding debate as we wait for the Bill’s arrival. Once again, my thanks are due to members of the committee and to the chair for giving us that opportunity. I hope the Minister addresses many of the serious questions that were raised during the debate. I am sure we all agree that there is much work to do.