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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords am 4:56 pm ar 27 Hydref 2022.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Lord Kamall Lord Kamall The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport 4:56, 27 Hydref 2022

My Lords, I begin by thanking my noble friend Lord Gilbert for moving this debate on the committee’s report. I also thank noble Lords who are members of that committee for having the foresight to place digital regulation at the centre of public debate, especially in their report. Let me also thank all noble Lords, whether or not they are on the committee, for their contributions.

Before I turn to the specific recommendations made in the report, as noble Lords asked about one fundamental issue that lies at the heart of this debate—freedom of expression—I think it is worth looking at that. Your Lordships’ committee highlighted the importance of protecting freedom of expression online and, as was said by the noble Baroness, Lady Featherstone, this is an age in which the internet has brought huge opportunities for freedom of expression. It allows people from all over the world to exchange ideas at a speed and scale never seen before. We should not throw that out.

When I was lecturing on international business courses, we used to talk about this concept in academic terms as space-time compression leading to globalisation. This has been of huge benefit to mankind, and one of the challenges for countries where we have reasonably good internet access is how to spread that to the rest of the world. Sometimes that is via mobile devices, if the landlines are not good enough, but we should not forget the important progress we have made. We should also remember how we can harness the good side of that technology.

As a result, as my noble friend Lord Gilbert said, the largest tech platforms exercise great influence over public discourse. They determine what content people encounter online and can arbitrarily remove content, with no accountability and few routes for users to appeal. One of the interesting questions around this debate is that there are always tensions. We are talking about freedom of expression against security or safety, and also how we behave towards other people and who has the right to remove content or to be an arbiter. Sometimes we see a tension between property rights and freedom of expression, and we have to address how much we give those platforms, which can argue, “Well, it’s our space, we have a right to arbitrate on who can have that debate here”. We see that in the physical world as well, where certain schools and campuses ban speakers. There is a tension between freedom of expression and property rights. The number of issues just shows how difficult this is.

This is why the Online Safety Bill is so important. We will bring it back soon—as soon as possible. By that I mean sooner than possible, and “possible” is not “probable”, if that makes sense. I wish I could say more, but I am always warned by my officials to be very careful what I say, because of various processes. Noble Lords who have been in government will understand this.

For the first time, tech companies are going to be accountable to an independent regulator for the protection of children and tackling of illegal content, while also protecting freedom of expression. I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Allan, for his points on the challenges and difficult issues that companies will have to overcome. It is not as simple as it sounds: we all want children to be protected, but it brings up lots of tensions and debate about how you do that and what the trade-offs are. But I am confident, having taken one Bill through this House, that we can rely on the wisdom of noble Lords to find an appropriate balance and address that tension. There is almost universal consensus on protecting children online but, as I said to the House yesterday, for adults we have to straddle that difficult tension between freedom of expression and protecting the vulnerable.

I hope that noble Lords will allow me to summarise some key changes to the Bill since the committee’s report. The noble Lord, Lord Davies, talked about fraud. That is covered under illegal content. I know that the committee made recommendations on content, and most noble Lords agree on the need to ensure that the Online Safety Bill includes strong protections against illegal content and criminal activity, while avoiding the removal of legal speech.

The Government have added provisions in the other place to establish how providers should determine whether content is illegal. We clarified how companies should determine whether content is illegal, protecting against both under-removal and over-removal of content, as the noble Lord, Lord Gilbert, alluded to. The Bill also includes strong protections for freedom of expression. Companies must have regard to freedom of expression when discharging their illegal content duties. I have no doubt that the noble Lord, Lord Allan, and I will have debates about what “due regard” means. Again, that is one of the issues we must address, and the largest platforms must set out what they are going to do to safeguard free speech.

The Government also welcome the committee’s endorsement of the importance of child safety. The strongest protections in the Bill remain those for children, but as the noble Lord, Lord Londesborough, said, how do we achieve that? How do we get there?

We have also addressed the committee’s concern that pornographic services were not captured in the Bill. We have made changes to require all websites which publish or host pornography to put robust checks in place to ensure that users are 18 years old or over. Again, as with many of these things, the question is how we deal with determined teenagers, who are often more tech-savvy than their parents and can run rings around them. We can put the best protections in place, but even the world’s best cybersecurity experts cannot stop hackers. So, we have to reduce this as much as possible, but I have to be honest: are we going to prevent the most determined and tech-savvy teenager from accessing content that we do not want them to access? That is a challenge, but we have to be honest about what we can and cannot do: what we can do through regulation, what companies themselves can do, but also what we can all do as society, as parents, as neighbours.

Let me turn to the committee’s recommendations on adult safety. We agree that platforms’ moderation decisions are inconsistent and opaque. That is why the duties in the Bill require major platforms to be transparent about and accountable for how they treat users’ content. We will continue to ensure that the Bill strikes the appropriate balance between safety and freedom of expression, but that will move in this House. We have also added measures to give adults more control over who can contact them. Adult users will be given options to verify their identity—the noble Baroness, Lady Merron, asked about this—and to decide whether to interact with unverified users. We hope that this will empower adults to manage their personal online experience, while protecting the anonymity of those who may need it, such as victims of abuse. Again, there is a very difficult balance to strike: we must make sure that we can tackle those who are anonymous and malicious, but we also have to protect those who have to remain anonymous for fear of abuse turning into something worse.

A number of noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths, mentioned a point that the committee rightly highlighted: the importance of platform design in keeping users safe online. We hope that the Bill will ensure that companies design their services to mitigate the risk of harm from illegal content, and to protect children. This has always been the policy intent. We clarified this in the other place by amending the Bill to include an explicit duty on companies to take measures relating to the design of their services. These changes will ensure that companies build in safety by design, managing the risk of illegal content and activity on their services, rather than mostly focusing on content moderation.

My noble friend Lady Stowell, the noble Viscount, Lord Colville, and others talked about digital markets regulation. The committee made a number of recommendations. The Government remain committed to establishing a pro-competition regime to boost competition in digital markets. We want to introduce new, faster, more effective tools to address the unique barriers to competition in digital markets. The Government will set out their plans for the new regime in a draft Bill during this legislative Session. As set out in the Plan for Digital Regulation, the Government are committed to ensuring that our regulators have the capacity and expertise to regulate effectively and proportionately.

The committee also recommended the creation of a new parliamentary Joint Committee to scrutinise the work of digital regulators. I am afraid I have to refer noble Lords back to the position the Government adopted in their response. The Government believe that such a permanent Joint Committee it is unnecessary when we already have rigorous scrutiny provided by established committees, such as your Lordships’ committee and the DCMS Select Committee in the other place. However, the Government intend to work with Parliament to support scrutiny of the Online Safety Bill in a way that captures the skills and expertise in both Houses. We welcome further views during the passage of this Bill.

I turn to a number of the points raised specifically by noble Lords. I will start with my noble friend Lord Vaizey. I would like to ask him: what does he know that others do not know about the reshuffle? I hope this is not fake news to drive traffic to his podcast.