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

I should take this opportunity to pay tribute to my honourable friend Damian Collins for his expertise. I sat in on a fascinating meeting that the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, organised last week with children’s groups. It was clear that he was on top of his brief. I have to admit that there will be a gap to fill, but I hope we will be able to fill it.

On that, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, in her absence, for organising that round table, and the noble Lord, Lord McNally, others who attended for their comments. It was touching, moving and gave me lots to think about. When I met Ian Russell, the father of Molly Russell, I said to him that we will do all we can to try to ensure this does not happen again. That is something I am sure noble Lords across the House agree on. We might disagree on how we do that, but let us keep that in mind as we go through the Online Safety Bill.

The noble Baroness, Lady Featherstone, was absolutely right: we have to equip our children to be robust enough to stand up to difficult arguments. I teach international politics. In my academic job, which I am on leave of absence from, my boss is a Marxist and I am a libertarian-minded Conservative, so we are at two different ends of the political spectrum. But we both agree that it is important to try not to indoctrinate our children but to expose them to arguments from across the political spectrum, and to let them decide and to argue and debate with each other. That gives them robustness, but it also allows them to think intellectually and develop. I agreed with the noble Baroness when she said that this is really important. We have to be very careful about mollycoddling our children and overprotecting them. We should expose them to arguments but also to tools to argue back against people. I know that some noble Lords will disagree. Once again, the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, made those remarks.

The noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill, made some fascinating points about respect and civility—I can tell why she is a philosopher. We also need to understand the issue of subjectivity. If someone says something and you are harmed, does that give you cause for redress? There is also an awful lot of hypocrisy in discussing freedom of speech. People often say that they are in favour of freedom of expression until they are offended, and then they are suddenly against it. I remember when I was in the European Parliament and there were the Danish cartoons of Muhammad. I am a practising Muslim. I was offended by some of the cartoons and I actually found some of them funny, but I did not think that they should be banned. I was happy to see the debate around them in a free society.

Then I took part in a debate and talked about the whiteness of the European political space, the lack of racial and ethnic diversity, some of the imperial ambitions of the EU and racism across the spectrum, including on the left, and I was asked to apologise because I had offended some people. The same people who extolled the virtues of freedom of expression were suddenly asking me to apologise because they did not like what I said. We have to be clear when we are concerned about something or are harmed or offended. We talk about freedom of expression: let us make sure we are consistent. Let us make sure that not only do we think we should feel free to say things, so long as they are not encouraging violence against others, for example, but at the same time are willing to be open to criticism in our own right. That makes for a stronger, more robust and more intellectually challenging society. From discourse comes liberty. That is an important point that we should not forget.

I can try to beat the clock. The noble Lord, Lord McNally, and the noble Baroness, Lady Uddin, talked about media literacy. It is a crucial skill for everyone in the digital age. Key media literacy skills are taught through a number of compulsory subjects in the national curriculum, but we need to be careful about it. We have to make sure that it is always up to date. There are new challenges. We have to make sure that these curricula are updated. We have the computing national curriculum, which builds digital literacy and citizenship education—some noble Lords do not like the idea of that. We want to make sure that there is critical thinking in debates in relation to the proper functioning of democracy. The Department for Education is reviewing its Teaching Online Safety in Schools guidance and its non-statutory guidance, which provide advice and support on how to teach children to stay safe online. The DCMS and the Department for Education work closely to create a holistic, whole-of-government approach to supporting media literacy.

The noble Viscount, Lord Colville, asked about an Australian-style bargaining code. We are committed to defending media freedom and enhancing the sustainability of the press sector, and we hope that the pro-competition regime conduct requirements will improve transparency and allow large platforms to provide the businesses that rely on them with fair and reasonable terms. This will make an important contribution to the sustainability of the press. In addition, we are minded to pursue the use of a binding final-offer mechanism as a backstop to resolve challenging price-related disputes where needed. We will design the mechanism to boost competition in all digital markets and have been engaging with the Australian Government to understand the impact of their news media bargaining code on platforms and publishers. This regime presents just one aspect of the Government’s wider support for news publishers, and we will continue to consider all possible options in the interests of promoting and sustaining the sector. Once again, we are open to the wisdom and knowledge of noble Lords in this House on how we do that.

A number of noble Lords, including the noble Lords, Lord Strathcarron, Lord Vaizey and Lord Londesborough, asked about age verification. There will be clear requirements for companies to prevent children accessing harmful content, such as online pornography. Companies that are likely to be accessed by children will need to use a range of technology, including age verification, to comply with the new requirement. Age assurance and age verification have now been referenced in the Bill, which provides clear direction to Ofcom and companies about the measures we expect may be used where proportionate. The Bill will not mandate that companies use specific technologies to comply with their new duties. It is important the Bill is future-proofed as much as possible, and what is most effective today may not be effective in the future. Once again noble Lords talked about issues such as VPNs, and there are ways around them, and there are other technologies that will challenge people’s safety. For example, I was told about face-scanning technologies and iris recognition for age verification, but is there something eerie about using that sort of technology? Do people feel concerned about that technology and the way the data is stored? Does it feel like a Big Brother society or is it useful to society? There will be different views among noble Lords in this Chamber, but we have to understand the spectrum of views. We know that age-assurance technologies are developing rapidly and there is growing usage.

The noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, talked about JS Mill. He knows that I am classically liberal-minded, so it is worth quoting Mill, who said that

“the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others”.

But there is disagreement over what is harmful, and JS Mill acknowledged that. When I was reading about this, I remember one paper saying that Mill does not say that the Government must always intervene to prevent one person harming another. Clearly, that is a philosophical discussion and there are a number of interpretations of JS Mill, but it is important that we recognise some of those issues. I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, for bringing that up so that I could digress into political philosophy.

This has been a fascinating debate. It has highlighted the arguments and tensions between online safety and freedom of expression, which I know we will return to during debates on the Online Safety Bill very soon. Let me once again thank all noble Lords for their wise contributions today and for exposing some of the challenges that we are going to face as we take that Bill through the Lords. I end by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Gilbert, for moving this debate. I look forward to continuing the debate and to working constructively with noble Lords as we chart our course through these new challenges.