All 6 Lord McNally contributions to the Online Safety Act 2023

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Wed 1st Feb 2023
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Committee stage: Part 2
Tue 9th May 2023
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Committee stage: Part 1
Wed 12th Jul 2023
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Lord McNally Excerpts
Lord McNally Portrait Lord McNally (LD)
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My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Parkinson, and the noble Baroness, Lady Merron, and the spirit of co-operation they have both shown in introducing the Bill. On our side we will be led by my noble friend Lord Clement-Jones, who is keeping his powder dry for the summing up.

I was pleased that there was praise for the pre-legislative scrutiny, which is a very useful tool in our locker. I was a member of the Puttnam committee, which in 2002 looked at what became the last Communications Act, and I took two lessons from that. The first was the creation of Ofcom as a regulator with teeth; it is important that we go forward with that. The other was the Puttnam amendment adding the protection of citizens’ interests to that of consumer interests as part of its responsibilities. Those twin responsibilities—to the consumer and the citizen—are valuable when addressing this Bill.

It is worth remembering that, although it may be a future Labour Government who deal with this, my experience is that this is not a dress rehearsal; this is the main event and we should seize the day. It has been 20 years since the last Bill, six years since the Green Paper, and five years since the White Paper, with a cavalcade of Secretaries of State. This House is entitled to stress-test and kick tyres in today’s debate and in Committee to see if the powers and scope meet the threats, challenges and opportunities posed by this technology.

We will play our part in delivering a Bill which is fit for purpose, but the Government must play theirs by being flexible in their approach in response to legitimate concerns and sensible amendments addressing them. The noble Baroness, Lady Merron, has already voiced concerns about powers left in the hands of future Secretaries of State. We will study what has been said this afternoon on those matters.

We welcome the Bill’s focus on protecting children. I do not think anybody who went to the presentation on the evidence in the Molly Russell inquest could have left with anything other than a determination that something must be done about this. Equally, the concerns of End Violence Against Women and other groups pose questions on whether this legislation goes far enough in the protections needed, which will have to be tested. There are real worries about the lack of minimum requirements for terms of service and the removal of risk assessment for adults. The noble Lord, Lord Bethell, has been raising very pertinent questions about age verification and access to pornography. The noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, and I intend to raise questions in Committee about the free pass given to newspapers by this legislation, although much of their activity is now online. There is no specific commitment, as has been said, to expand media literacy, despite it being a major recommendation of the Puttnam committee 20 years ago.

The internet has been an amazing catalyst for change, innovation and creativity. But those benefits have come at a price of targeted actions designed to cause harms to individuals and institutions. On all Benches we believe that freedom of expression is important, but liberal democracies have a right to provide a framework of protection against those who seek to harm it. Much will depend on the response to legislation and regulation by the internet companies. The public are not stupid; they can differentiate between tick-box exercises and compliance, between profit maximisation and social responsibility. The noble Lord, Lord Grade, is also not stupid and I wish him well as chair of Ofcom.

My work on the Puttnam committee 20 years ago was among the most satisfying of my parliamentary life. I hope we will all have similar feelings when we complete our work on this Bill.

Online Safety Bill

Lord McNally Excerpts
Lord McNally Portrait Lord McNally (LD)
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My Lords, I have long been on record as being for radical reform of the House of Lords, but I do not think there are many Chambers in the world that could have had such an interesting debate on such a key subject—certainly not the House of Commons, sadly. Without falling into the old trap of saying what a wonderful lot we all are, it is important that, in such an important Bill, covering so many important areas of civil liberties and national security, there should be an opportunity, before we get to voting, to have this kind of debate and get some of the issues into the public domain.

I am on the same side as the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, on knowledge of the technology—looking back to 20 years ago, when I was on the committee that worked on the communications Bill which set up Ofcom, I see that we were genuinely innocents abroad. We deliberately decided not to try regulating the internet, because we did not know what it was going to do. I do not think that we can have that excuse today.

Perhaps an even more frightening background is that, for three and a half years, during the coalition Government, I was Minister for Digital Protection—a less equipped Minister to protect your digital I cannot imagine. However, I remember being taken to some place over the river to have a look at our capacities in this area. Having seen some of the things that were being done, I rather timidly asked the expert who was showing me round, “Aren’t there civil liberty issues in what you’re doing?” He said, “Oh no, sir. Tesco know far more about you than we do”.

There is this element about what is secret. The noble Baroness, Lady Fox, in her last contribution, said that children look with contempt at some of the safeguards and blockages that keep them away from things. I do not think anybody is deluding themselves that there is some silver bullet. As always, Parliament must do its best to address real national concerns and real problems in the best way that we see at this time. There is a degree of cross-party and Cross-Bench unity, in that there are real and present dangers in how these technologies are being used, and real and present abuses of a quite horrific kind. The noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, is right. This technology has given a quantum leap to the damage that the abuser and the pornographer can do to our society, in the same way that it has given a quantum leap to those who want to undermine the truth and fairness of our election system. There are real problems that must be addressed.

Although it has not been present in this debate, it is no help to polarise the argument as being between the state wanting to accrue more and more powers and brave defenders of civil liberties. As somebody who has practised some of these dark arts myself, I advise those who are organising letters to ensure that those sending them do not leave in the paragraph that says, “Here you may want to include some personal comments”. It waters down the credibility of this as some independent exercising of a democratic right.

I make a plea, as someone on the edges of the debate who at times had some direct responsibilities, to use what the Bill has thrown up to address whether it is now in the right shape—I hope the Minister hears it. The Government should not be ashamed to take it away and think a bit. It may be that we can add some of the protections that we quite often do, such as allowing certain interventions after a judge or senior police officer or others have been involved. That may already be in other parts of the Bill. However, it would be wrong to allow the Bill to polarise this, given that there was no one who spoke this morning who is not trying to deal with very real difficulties, problems and challenges, within the framework of a democratic society, in a way that protects our freedoms but also protects us from real and present dangers.

Lord Kamall Portrait Lord Kamall (Con)
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My Lords, this is the first time that I have spoken on the Bill in Committee. I know noble Lords are keen to move on and get through the groups as quickly as possible, but I hope they will forgive me if I say that I will speak only about twice on the Bill, and this is one of the groups that I want to speak to. I will try not to make your Lordships impatient.

I should tell the Committee a little about where I am coming from. I was very geeky as a kid. I learned to program and code. I did engineering at university and coded there. My master’s degree in the late 1980s was about technology and policy, so I have been interested in technology policy since then, having followed it through in my professional life. In 1996, I wrote a book on EU telecoms—it sold so well that no one has ever heard of it. One thing I said in that book, which though not an original thought is pertinent today, is that the regulation will always be behind the technology. We will always play catch-up, and we must be concerned about that.

Interestingly, when you look at studies of technology adoption—pioneers, early adopters and then the rest of the population—quite often you see that the adult industry is at the leading edge, such as with cable TV, satellite TV, video cassettes, online conferencing, et cetera. I assure your Lordships that I have not done too much primary research into this, but it is an issue that we ought to be aware of.

I will not speak often in this debate, because there are many issues that I do not want to disagree on. For example, I have already had a conversation with the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, and we all agree that we need to protect children. We also know that we need to protect vulnerable adults; there is no disagreement on that. However, in these discussions there will be inevitable trade-offs between security and safety and freedom. It is right to have these conversations to ensure that we get the balance right, with the wisdom of noble Lords. Sacrifices will be made on either side of the debate, and we should be very careful as we navigate this.

I am worried about some of the consequences for freedom of expression. When I was head of a research think tank, one of the phenomena that I became interested in was that of unintended consequences. Well-meaning laws and measures have often led to unintended consequences. Some people call it a law of unintended consequences, and some call it a principle, and we should be careful about this. The other issue is subjectivity of harms. Given that we have taken “legal but harmful” out and there are amendments to the Bill to tackle harms, there will be a debate on the subjectivity of harms.

One reason I wanted to speak on this group is that some of the amendments tabled by noble Lords—too many to mention—deal with technology notices and ensuring that we are consistent between the offline and online worlds, particularly regarding the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act. I welcome and support those amendments.

We also have to be aware that people will find a way around it, as the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, said. When I was looking at terrorism and technology, one of the issues that people raised with me was not to forget that one way around it was to create an email account and store stuff in a draft folder. You could then share the username and password with others who could then access that data, those pictures or those instructions in a draft folder. The noble Lord, Lord Allan, has gone some way to addressing that issue.

The other issue that we have to be clear about is how the tech sector can do more. It was interesting when my noble friend Lady Stowell organised a meeting with Meta, which was challenged particularly on having access to information and pictures from coroners. It was very interesting when Meta told us what it could access: it does not know what is in the messages, but there are things that it can access, or advise people to access, on the user’s phone or at the other end. I am not sure whether the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, has had the conversation with Meta, but it would be helpful and important to find some common ground there, and to probe and push Meta and others to make sure that they share that information more quickly, so we do not have to wait five years to get it via the coroner or whatever. We ought to push that as much as possible.

I want to talk in particular about unintended consequences, particularly around end-to-end encryption. Even if you do not believe the big businesses and think that they are crying wolf when they say that they will quit the UK—although I believe that there is a threat of that, particularly when we continually want the UK to be a global hub for technology and innovation and so cannot afford for companies such as Meta, Signal and others to leave—you should listen to the journalists who are working with people, quite often dissidents, in many countries, and rely on encrypted communications to communicate with them.

The other risk we should be aware of is that it is very difficult to keep technology to a few people. In my academic career, I also looked at technology transfer, both intentional and unintentional. We should look at the intelligence services and some of the innovations that happened: for example, when Concorde was designed, it was not very long after that the Soviets got their hands on that equipment. Just as there used to be a chap called Bob in the exchange who could share information, there is always a weak spot in chains: the humans. Lots of humans have a price and can be bought, or they can be threatened, and things can be shared. The unintended consequence I am worried about is that this technology will get into the hands of totalitarian regimes. At the same time, it means people over here who are really trying desperately to help dissidents and others speak up for freedom in other countries will be unable to support them. We should be very careful and think about unintended consequences. For that reason, I support this group of amendments.

I really am looking forward to the responses from the Minister. I know that the noble Lord, Lord McNally, said that he was a Minister for three years on data protection; I was a Minister in this department for one month. I was so pleased that I had my dream job, as Minister for Civil Society and Heritage, and so proud of my party and this country because we had elected the first Asian Prime Minister; then, six days later, I got sacked. So, as they say, be careful what you wish for.

In this particular case, I am grateful to the noble Lords who have spoken up in this debate. I do not want to repeat any other points but just wanted to add that. I will not speak often, but I want to say that it is really critical that, when we look at this trade-off between security, safety and freedom, we get it right. One way of doing that is to make sure that, on technology notices and RIPA, we are consistent between the online and offline worlds.

Moved by
33B: After Clause 11, insert the following new Clause—
“Adult risk assessment duties
(1) This section sets out the duties about adult risk assessments which apply in relation to all Category 1 services.(2) A duty to carry out a suitable and sufficient assessment of the risk of an adult user encountering by means of the service content which is harmful to adults taking into account any relevant risk profile and to keep that assessment up to date, including when OFCOM make any significant change to a risk profile that relates to services of the kind in question, or before making any significant change to any aspect of a service’s design or operation including changes to any user empowerment tools.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment requires Category 1 services to assess the risk of harm to adults arising from the operation of their services.
Lord McNally Portrait Lord McNally (LD)
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My Lords, as a former Deputy Leader of this House, if I were sitting on the Front Bench, I would have more gumption than to try to start a debate only 10 minutes before closing time. But I realise that the wheels grind on—perhaps things are no longer as flexible as they were in my day—so noble Lords will get my speech. The noble Lord, Lord Grade, who is at his post—it is very encouraging to see the chair of Ofcom listening to this debate—and I share a love of music hall. He will remember Eric Morecambe saying that one slot was like the last slot at the Glasgow Empire on a Friday night. That is how I feel now.

A number of references have been made to those who served on the Joint Committee and what an important factor it has been in their thinking. I have said on many occasions that one of the most fulfilling times of my parliamentary life was serving on the Joint Committee for the Communications Act 2003. The interesting thing was that we had no real idea of what was coming down the track as far as the internet was concerned, but we did set up Ofcom. At that time, a lot of the pundits and observers were saying, “Murdoch’s lawyers will have these government regulators for breakfast”. Well, they did not. Ofcom has turned into a regulator for which—at some stages this has slightly worried me—for almost any problem facing the Government, they say, “We’ll give it to Ofcom”. It has certainly proved that it can regulate across a vast area and with great skill. I have every confidence that the noble Lord, Lord Grade, will take that forward.

Perhaps it is to do with the generation I come from, but I do not have this fear of regulation or government intervention. In some ways, the story of my life is that of government intervention. If I am anybody’s child, I am Attlee’s child—not just because of the reforms of the Labour Party, but the reforms of the coalition Government, the Butler Education Act and the bringing in of the welfare state. So I am not afraid of government and Parliament taking responsibility in addressing real dangers.

In bringing forward this amendment, along with my colleague the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, who cannot be here today, I am referring to legislation that is 20 years old. That is a warning to newcomers; it could be another 20 years before parliamentary time is found for a Bill of this complexity, so we want to be sure that we get its scope right.

The Minister said recently that the Bill is primarily a child safety Bill, but it did not start off that way. Five years ago, the online harms White Paper was seen as a pathfinder and trailblazer for broader legislation. Before we accept the argument that the Bill is now narrowed down to more specific terms, we should think about whether there are other areas that still need to be covered.

These amendments are in the same spirit as those in the names of the noble Baronesses, Lady Stowell, Lady Bull, and Lady Featherstone. We seek to reinstate an adult risk assessment duty because we fear that the change in title signals a reduction in scope and a retreat from the protections which earlier versions of the Bill intended to provide.

It was in this spirit, and to enable us to get ahead of the game, that in 2016 I proposed a Private Member’s Bill on this subject: the Online Harms Reduction Regulator (Report) Bill, which asked Ofcom to publish, in advance of the anticipated legislation, assessments of what action was needed to reduce harm to users and wider society from social networks. I think we can all agree that, if that work had been done in advance of the main legislation, such evidence would be very useful now.

I am well aware that there are those who, in the cause of some absolute concepts of freedom, believe that to seek to broaden the scope of the Bill takes us into the realms of the nanny state. But part of the social contract which enables us to survive in this increasingly complex world is that the ordinary citizen, who is busy struggling with the day-to-day challenges of normal life, does trust his Government and Parliament to keep an anticipatory weather eye on what is coming down the track and what dangers lie therein for the ordinary citizen.

When there have been game-changing advances in technology in the past, it has often taken a long time for societies to adapt and adjust. The noble Lord, Lord Moylan, referred to the invention of the printing press. That caused the Reformation, the Industrial Revolution and around 300 years of war, so we have to be careful how we handle these technological changes. Instagram was founded in 2010, and the iPhone 4 was released then too. One eminent social psychologist wrote:

“The arrival of smartphones rewired social life.”

It is not surprising that liberal democracies, with their essentially 18th-century construct of democracy, struggle to keep up.

The record of big tech in the last 20 years has, yes, been an amazing leap in access to information. However, that quantum leap has come with a social cost in almost every aspect of our lives. Nevertheless, I refuse to accept the premise that these technologies are too global and too powerful in their operation for them not to come within the reach of any single jurisdiction or the rule of law. I am more impressed by efforts by big tech companies to identify and deal with real harms than I am by threats to quit this or that jurisdiction if they do not get the light-touch regulation they want so as to be able to profit maximise.

We know by their actions that some companies and individuals simply do not care about their social responsibilities or the impact of what they sell and how they sell it on individuals and society as a whole. That is why the social contract in our liberal democracies means a central role for Parliament and government in bringing order and accountability into what would otherwise become a jungle. That is why, over the last 200 years, Parliament has protected its citizens from the bad behaviour of employers, banks, loan sharks, dodgy salesmen, insanitary food, danger at work and so on. In this new age, we know that companies large and small, British and foreign, can, through negligence, indifference or malice, drive innocent people into harmful situations. The risks that people face are complex and interlocking; they cannot be reduced to a simple list, as the Government seek to do in Clause 12.

When I sat on the pre-legislative committee in 2003, we could be forgiven for not fully anticipating the tsunami of change that the internet, the world wide web and the iPhone were about to bring to our societies. That legislation did, as I said, establish Ofcom with a responsibility to promote media literacy, which it has only belatedly begun to take seriously. We now have no excuse for inaction or for drawing up legislation so narrowly that it fails to deal with the wide risks that might befall adults in the synthetic world of social media.

We have tabled our amendments not because they will solve every problem or avert every danger but because they would be a step in the right direction and so make this a better Bill.

Baroness Stowell of Beeston Portrait Baroness Stowell of Beeston (Con)
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I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord McNally, for namechecking me and the amendments I have tabled with the support of the noble Baronesses, Lady Featherstone and Lady Bull, although I regret to inform him that they are not in this group. I understand where the confusion has come from. They were originally in this group, but as it developed I felt that my amendments were no longer in the right place. They are now in the freedom of expression group, which we will get to next week. What he has just said has helped, because the amendments I am bringing forward are not similar to the ones he has tabled. They have a very different purpose. I will not pre-empt the debate we will have when we get to freedom of expression, but I think it is only proper that I make that clear. I am very grateful to the noble Lord for the trail.

Online Safety Bill

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Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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Our right honourable friend’s content was reuploaded. This makes the point that the problem at the moment is the opacity of these terms and conditions; what platforms say they do and what they do does not always align. The Bill makes sure that users can hold them to account for the terms of service that they publish, so that people can know what to expect on platforms and have some form of redress when their experience does not match their expectations.

I was coming on to say a bit more about that after making some points about foreign jurisdictions and my noble friend’s Amendment 155. As I say, parts or versions of the service that are used in foreign jurisdictions but not in the UK are not covered by the duties in Clause 65. As such, the Bill does not require a provider to have systems and processes designed to enforce any terms of service not applicable in the UK.

In addition, the duties do not give powers to Ofcom to enforce a provider’s terms of service directly. Ofcom’s role will be focused on ensuring that platforms have systems and processes in place to enforce their own terms of service consistently rather than assessing individual pieces of content.

Requiring providers to set terms of service for specific types of content suggests that the Government view that type of content as harmful or risky. That would encourage providers to prohibit such content, which of course would have a negative impact on freedom of expression, which I am sure is not what my noble friend wants to see. Freedom of expression is essential to a democratic society. Throughout the passage of the Bill, the Government have always committed to ensuring that people can speak freely online. We are not in the business of indirectly telling companies what legal content they can and cannot allow online. Instead, the approach that we have taken will ensure that platforms are transparent and accountable to their users about what they will and will not allow on their services.

Clause 65 recognises that companies, as private entities, have the right to remove content that is legal from their services if they choose to do so. To prevent them doing so, by requiring them to balance this against other priorities, would have perverse consequences for their freedom of action and expression. It is right that people should know what to expect on platforms and that they are able to hold platforms to account when that does not happen. On that basis, I invite the noble Lords who have amendments in this group not to press them.

Lord McNally Portrait Lord McNally (LD)
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My Lords, in his opening remarks, the Minister referred to the fact that this debate began last Tuesday. Well, it did, in that I made a 10-minute opening speech and the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, rather elegantly hopped out of this group of amendments; perhaps she saw what was coming.

How that made me feel is perhaps best summed up by what the noble Earl, Lord Howe, said earlier when he was justifying the business for tomorrow. He said that adjournments were never satisfactory. In that spirit, I wrote to the Leader of the House, expressing the grumbles I made in my opening remarks. He has written back in a very constructive and thoughtful way. I will not delay the Committee any longer, other than to say that I hope the Leader of the House would agree to make his reply available for other Members to read. It says some interesting things about how we manage business. It sounds like a small matter but if what happened on Tuesday had happened in other circumstances in the other place, business would probably have been delayed for at least an hour while the usual suspects picked holes in it. If the usual channels would look at this, we could avoid some car crashes in future.

I am pleased that this group of amendments has elicited such an interesting debate, with fire coming from all sides. In introducing the debate, I said that probably the only real advice I could give the Committee came from my experience of being on the pre-legislative scrutiny committee in 2003. That showed just how little we were prepared for the tsunami of new technology that was about to engulf us. My one pleasure was that we were part of forming Ofcom. I am pleased that the chairman of Ofcom, the noble Lord, Lord Grade, has assiduously sat through our debates. I suspect he is thinking that he had better hire some more lawyers.

We are trying to get this right. I have no doubt that all sides of the House want to get this legislation through in good shape and for it to play an important role. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Grade, never imagined that he would become a state regulator in the kind of ominous way in which the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, said it. Ofcom has done a good job and will do so in future.

There is a problem of getting definitions right. When I was at the Ministry of Justice, I once had to entertain a very distinguished American lawyer. As I usually did, I explained that I was not a lawyer. He looked at me and said, “Then I will speak very slowly”. There is a danger, particularly in this part of the Bill, of wandering into a kind of lawyer-fest. It is important that we are precise about what powers we are giving to whom. Just to chill the Minister’s soul, I remember being warned as well about Pepper v Hart. What he says at the Dispatch Box will be used to interpret what Parliament meant when it gave this or that power.

The debate we have had thus far has been fully justified in sending a few warning signals to the Minister that it is perhaps not quite right yet. It needs further work. There is a lot of good will on all sides of the House to get it right. For the moment, I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.

Amendment 33B withdrawn.

Online Safety Bill

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Lord McNally Portrait Lord McNally (LD)
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My Lords, my name is also to this amendment. I am moved by a phrase used by the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, on Monday; he said the passage of this Bill has been a “series of conversations”. So it has been. The way the Minister has engaged with the House on many of the concerns that the Bill tries to cover has been greatly to his credit.

It is somewhat unknown how much the new technologies will impact on our democracy, our privacy and the safety of our children, although they have all been discussed with great thoroughness. That is why the opt-out for recognised news publishers is something of a puzzle, unless you assume that the Government have caved in to pressure from that sector. Why should it be given this opt-out? It is partly because if you ask the press to take responsibility in any way, it becomes like Violet Elizabeth Bott in the Just William stories; it “thkweems and thkweems”—usually led by the noble Lord, Lord Black, whom I am glad to see in his place —and talks about press freedom.

My skin in this game is that I was the Minister in the Lords when the Leveson inquiry was under way and when we took action to try to implement its findings. It is interesting that at that point there was cross-party agreement in both Houses on how to implement them. I advise anybody intending to go into coalitions in future not to take the Conservative Party’s assurances on such matters totally at face value, as that cross-party agreement to implement Leveson was reneged on by the Conservative Party under pressure from the main newspaper publishers.

It was a tragedy, because the “series of conversations” that the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, referred to will be ongoing. We will not let the press off the hook, no matter how much it wields its power. It is just over 90 years since Stanley Baldwin’s famous accusation of

“power without responsibility—the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages”.

It is just over 30 years since David Mellor warned the press that it was in the “last chance saloon” and just over 10 years since Rupert Murdoch said that appearing before the Leveson inquiry, with a curious choice of language, was

“the most humble day of my life”.

Of course, like water off a duck’s back, once the pressure was off and the deal had been done with the Conservative Party, we could carry on on our own merry way.

It was a tragedy too because the Leveson settlement—as I think the PRP and Impress have proved—works perfectly well. It is neither state controlled nor an imposition on a free press. Like the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, I greatly resent the idea that this is somehow an attempt to impose on a free press. It is an attempt to get the press to help the whole of our democracy and make things work properly, just as this Bill attempts to do.

Someone mentioned Rupert Murdoch’s recent summer party. The Prime Minister was not the only one who went—so did the leader of the Opposition. I like to think that Mr Attlee would not have gone. I am not sure that my old boss, Jim Callaghan, would have gone. I do not think that either would have flown half way around the world, as Tony Blair did, to treat with him. The truth is that, over the last decade or so, in some ways the situation has got worse. Politicians are more cowed by the press. When I was a Minister and we proposed some reasonably modest piece of radical change, I was told by my Conservative colleague, “We’ll not get that through; the Daily Mail won’t tolerate it”. That pressure on politics means we need politicians with the guts to resist it.

Those who want a genuinely free press would not leave this festering wound. I will not join in the attack on the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, because we worked together very well in coalition. I would prefer to see IPSO reform itself to become Leveson-compliant. That would not bring any of the dangers that we will hear about from the noble Lord, Lord Black, but it would give us a system of press regulation that we could all agree with.

On Section 40, I remember well the discussions about how we would give some incentive to join. A number of my colleagues feel uncomfortable about Section 40 making even the winners pay, but the winner pays only if they are not within a Leveson-compliant system. That was, perhaps innocently, thought of as a carrot to bring the press in, though, of course, it does not read easily. Frankly, if Section 40 were to go but IPSO became Leveson-compliant, that would be a fair deal.

This Bill leaves us with some very dangerous loopholes. Some of the comments underneath in the press and, as the Minister referred to, the newsclips that can be added can be extremely dangerous if children are exposed to them.

There are many other loopholes that this genuflection to press power is going to leave in the Bill and which will lead to problems in the future. Rather than launch another attack—because you can be sure another case will come along or another outrage will happen, and perhaps this time, Parliament will have the guts to deal with it—it would be far better if the media itself saw Leveson for what it was: a masterful, genuine attempt to put a free press within the context of a free society and protect the individuals and institutions in that society in a way that is in all our interests. As the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, said, we are not pushing this tonight, but we are not going to go away.

Viscount Colville of Culross Portrait Viscount Colville of Culross (CB)
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My Lords, I have been a journalist my whole career and I have great respect for the noble Lords who put their names to Amendments 159 and 160. However, I cannot support another attempt to lever Section 42 of the Crime and Courts Act into the Bill. In Committee I put my name to Amendment 51, which aims to protect journalism in the public interest. It is crucial to support our news outlets, in the interests of democracy and openness. We are in a world where only a few newspapers, such as the New York Times, manage to make a profit from their digital subscribers. I welcome the protection provided by Clause 50; it is much needed.

In the past decade, the declining state of local journalism has meant there is little coverage of magistrates’ courts and council proceedings, the result being that local public servants are no longer held to account. At a national level, newspapers are more and more reluctant to put money into investigations unless they are certain of an outcome, which is rarely the case. Meanwhile, the tech platforms are using newspapers’ contents for free or paying them little money, while disaggregating news content on their websites so the readers do not even know its provenance. I fear that the digital era is putting our legacy media, which has long been a proud centrepiece of our democracy, in great danger. The inclusion of these amendments would mean that all national newspapers and most local media would be excluded from the protections of the clause. The Bill, which is about regulating the digital world, should not be about trying to limit the number of newspapers and news websites covered by the protections of Clause 50; it would threaten democracy at a local and national level.

Online Safety Bill

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Lord Clement-Jones Portrait Lord Clement-Jones (LD)
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My Lords, this has been a very interesting short debate. Like other noble Lords, I am very pleased that the Government have proposed the new clauses in Amendments 274B and 274C. The noble Baroness, Lady Bull, described absolutely the importance of media literacy, particularly for disabled people and for the vulnerable. This is really important for them. It is important also not to fall into the trap described by the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, of saying, “You are a child or a vulnerable person. You must acquire media literacy—it’s your obligation; it’s not the obligation of the platforms to design their services appropriately”. I take that point, but it does not mean that media literacy is not extraordinarily important.

However, sadly, I do not believe that the breadth of the Government’s new media literacy amendments is as wide as the original draft Bill. If you look back at the draft Bill, that was a completely new and upgraded set of duties right across the board, replacing Section 11 of the Communications Act and, in a sense, fit for the modern age. The Government have made a media literacy duty which is much narrower. It relates only to regulated services. This is not optimum. We need something broader which puts a bigger and broader duty for the future on to Ofcom.

It is also deficient in two respects. The noble Lord, Lord Knight, will speak to his amendments, but it struck me immediately when looking at that proposed new clause that we were missing all the debate about functionalities and so on that the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, debated the other day, regarding design, and that we must ensure that media literacy encompasses understanding the underlying functionalities and systems of the platforms that we are talking about.

I know that your Lordships will be very excited to hear that I am going to refer again to the Joint Committee. I know that the Minister has read us from cover to cover, but at paragraph 381 on the draft Bill we said, and it is still evergreen:

“If the Government wishes to improve the UK’s media literacy to reduce online harms, there must be provisions in the Bill to ensure media literacy initiatives are of a high standard. The Bill should empower Ofcom to set minimum standards for media literacy initiatives that both guide providers and ensure the information they are disseminating aligns with the goal of reducing online harm”.

I had a very close look at the clause. I could not see that Ofcom is entitled to set minimum standards. The media literacy provisions sadly are deficient in that respect.

Lord McNally Portrait Lord McNally (LD)
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I am not surprised that my noble friend refers to his experience on the Joint Committee. He will not be surprised that I am about to refer to my experience on the Puttnam committee in 2003, which recommended media literacy as a priority for Ofcom. The sad fact is that media literacy was put on the back burner by Ofcom for almost 20 years. While I listen to this House, I think that my noble friend is quite right to accuse the Government, hard as the Minister has tried, of a paucity of ambition and—more than that—of letting us slip into the same mistake made by Ofcom after 2003 and allowing this to be a narrow, marginal issue. The noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, has reminded us time and again that unless we educate those who are using these technologies, these abuses will proliferate.

Therefore, with what my noble friend is advocating and what we will keep an eye on as the Bill is implemented—and I now literally speak over the Minister’s head, to the Member behind—Ofcom must take media literacy seriously and be a driving force in its implementation, for the very reasons that the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, referred to. We do not want everybody protected by regulations and powers—we want people protected by their own knowledge of what they are dealing with. This is where there is a gap between what has been pressed on the Government and what they are offering.

Lord Clement-Jones Portrait Lord Clement-Jones (LD)
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My Lords, I thank my noble friend very much for that intervention.

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Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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My Lords, I am grateful to noble Lords for their comments, and for the recognition from the noble Lord, Lord Knight, of the changes that we have made. I am particularly grateful to him for having raised media literacy throughout our scrutiny of this Bill.

His Amendments 269C and 269D seek to set a date by which the establishment of the advisory committee on misinformation and disinformation must take place and to set requirements for its first report. Ofcom recognises the valuable role that the committee will play in providing advice in relation to its duties on misinformation and disinformation, and has assured us that it will aim to establish the committee as soon as is reasonably possible, in recognition of the threats posed by misinformation and disinformation online.

Given the valuable role of the advisory committee, Ofcom has stressed how crucial it will be to have appropriate time to appoint the best possible committee. Seeking to prescribe a timeframe for its implementation risks impeding Ofcom’s ability to run the thorough and transparent recruitment process that I am sure all noble Lords want and to appoint the most appropriate and expert members. It would also not be appropriate for the Bill to be overly prescriptive on the role of the committee, including with regard to its first report, in order for it to maintain the requisite independence and flexibility to give us the advice that we want.

Amendment 269AA from the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, seeks to add advice on content provenance to the duties of the advisory committee. The new media literacy amendments, which update Ofcom’s media literacy duties, already include a requirement for Ofcom to take steps to help users establish the reliability, accuracy and authenticity of content found on regulated services. Ofcom will have duties and mechanisms to be able to advise platforms on how they can help users to understand whether content is authentic; for example, by promoting tools that assist them to establish the provenance of content, where appropriate. The new media literacy duties will require Ofcom to take tangible steps to prioritise the public’s awareness of and resilience to misinformation and disinformation online. That may include enabling users to establish the reliability, accuracy and authenticity of content, but the new duties will not remove content online; I am happy to reassure the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, on that.

The advisory committee is already required under Clause 141(4)(c) to advise Ofcom on its exercise of its media literacy functions, including its new duties relating to content authenticity. The Bill does not stipulate what tools service providers should use to fulfil their duties, but Ofcom will have the ability to recommend in its codes of practice that companies use tools such as provenance technologies to identify manipulated media which constitute illegal content or content that is harmful to children, where appropriate. Ofcom is also required to take steps to encourage the development and use of technologies that provide users with further context about content that they encounter online. That could include technologies that support users to establish content provenance. I am happy to reassure the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, that the advisory committee will already be required to advise on the issues that he has raised in his amendment.

On media literacy more broadly, Ofcom retains its overall statutory duty to promote media literacy, which remains broad and non-prescriptive. The new duties in this Bill, however, are focused specifically on harm; that is because the of nature of the Bill, which seeks to make the UK the safest place in the world to be online and is necessarily focused on tackling harms. To ensure that Ofcom succeeds in the delivery of these new specific duties with regard to regulated services, it is necessary that the regulator has a clearly defined scope. Broadening the duties would risk overburdening Ofcom by making its priorities less clear.

The noble Baroness, Lady Bull—who has been translated to the Woolsack while we have been debating this group—raised media literacy for more vulnerable users. Under Ofcom’s existing media literacy programme, it is already delivering initiatives to support a range of users, including those who are more vulnerable online, such as people with special educational needs and people with disabilities. I am happy to reassure her that, in delivering this work, Ofcom is already working not just with expert groups including Mencap but with people with direct personal experiences of living with disabilities.

The noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, raised Ofsted. Effective regulatory co-ordination is essential for addressing the crosscutting opportunities and challenges posed by digital technologies and services. Ofsted will continue to engage with Ofcom through its existing mechanisms, including engagement led by its independent policy team and those held with Ofcom’s online safety policy director. In addition to that, Ofsted is considering mechanisms through which it can work more closely with Ofcom where appropriate. These include sharing insights from inspections in an anonymised form, which could entail reviews of its inspection bases and focus groups with inspectors, on areas of particular concern to Ofcom. Ofsted is committed to working with Ofcom’s policy teams to work these plans up in more detail.

Lord McNally Portrait Lord McNally (LD)
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My Lords, could I ask the Minister a question? He has put his finger on one of the most important aspects of this Bill: how it will integrate with the Department for Education and all its responsibilities for schools. Again, talking from long experience, one of the worries is the silo mentality in Whitehall, which is quite often strongest in the Department for Education. Some real effort will be needed to make sure there is a crossover from the powers that Ofcom has to what happens in the classroom.

Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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I hope what I have said about the way that Ofsted and Ofcom are working together gives the noble Lord some reassurance. He is right, and it is not just in relation to the Department for Education. In my own department, we have discussed in previous debates on media literacy the importance of critical thinking, equipping people with the sceptical, quizzical, analytic skills they need—which art, history and English literature do as well. The provisions in this Bill focus on reducing harm because the Bill is focused on making the UK the safest place to be online, but he is right that media literacy work more broadly touches on a number of government departments.

Amendment 274BA would require Ofcom to promote an understanding of how regulated services’ business models operate, how they use personal data and the operation of their algorithmic systems and processes. We believe that Ofcom’s existing duty under the Communications Act already ensures that the regulator can cover these aspects in its media literacy activities. The duty requires Ofcom to build public awareness of the processes by which material on regulated services is selected or made available. This enables Ofcom to address the platform features specified in this amendment.

The Government’s amendments include extensive new objectives for Ofcom, which apply to harmful ways in which a service is used as well as harmful content. We believe it important not to add further to this duty when the outcomes can already be achieved through the existing duty. We do not wish to limit, by implication, Ofcom’s media literacy duties in relation to other, non-regulated services.

We also judge that the noble Lord’s amendment carries a risk of confusing the remits of Ofcom and the Information Commissioner’s Office. UK data protection law already confers a right for people to be informed about how their personal data are being used, making this aspect of the amendment superfluous.