Today’s Twitter fallout is the latest reminder of the importance of cyber security, privacy and trust; all of the issues that social media platforms – and the way we use them – throw up.

The attack, described as ‘effective but not sophisticated’, illustrates not just how vulnerable the platform is to hackers but, as significantly, how quickly an attack goes global and misleads, infects and entraps so many. On this occasion a Bitcoin heist but what next, what else?

On this theme, today I asked the Government what assessment they have made of the impact of digital platforms on the functioning of democracy. Specifically I wanted to know when we can expect the long awaited Online Harms Bill to come before Parliament and also obtain a reassurance that issues in the Bill would not become negotiating tools in current trade negotiations.

My Lords, does my noble friend the Minister agree that platforms must be made responsible for the content they push, promote and amplify? It should be a case of “We support freedom of speech; there is no right to freedom of reach.” Will she give the House a hint as to when the online harms Bill will appear, and will she assure the House that none of the provisions in the Bill will be unwittingly traded away in any upcoming trade deals?

Hansard 16th July 2020

In the debate that followed Baroness Kidron amplified the point around the potential trading away of children’s online protection in the upcoming U.S. trade deal:

The United Kingdom is home to ground-breaking domestic legislation—such as the recently passed age-appropriate design code and the upcoming online harms Bill—that seeks to protect children online. However, the protections that these measures offer are at risk from an aggressive lobbying effort that is leveraging the US-UK trade negotiations and might undermine our domestic regulation. In doing so, it is undermining promises made to an electorate who have voted repeatedly for a Government who have promised to protect children online. This is in a context where today, right across the BBC, we see programming highlighting the risks to children online, including a 50% rise in child sexual abuse material during Covid. What steps is the DCMS taking to ensure that UK children are protected in the US-UK trade talks, and will the Minister be willing to liaise with the Secretary of State for Trade so that I and other concerned parliamentarians can put the case clearly for a carve-out in the trade deal to protect UK children from online harms?

Hansard 16th July 2020

It was extremely positive to hear the Minister confirm that children’s protection online was the greatest priority in the Online Harms legislation and that the Government stood firmly by this commitment declaring that nothing in any trade deal would impact this.

The Archbishop of Canterbury pointed out the deadly disease of hateful on line material and Lord Clement Jones asked whether all Government departments would join the current Facebook boycott by several companies (and the Labour Party). The Minister would not be drawn on this point.

Platforms must be responsible for the posts they push, fully in the knowledge that it will be such content that will drive dwell time and thus bucks.  There is nothing naive or unknown in this most extractive of business models.

It is why, in our House of Lords Select Committee report Digital Technology and the Resurrection of Trust we make the clear distinction between freedom of speech and freedom of reach. Freedom of speech an important human right but as regards so called ‘freedom of reach’ – no such freedom can be asserted or supported.

Our report recommended that the Online Harms Bill should be introduced within a year of the Report’s publication and should make it clear that mis and disinformation are in scope.

A critical point, related to the very fabric and health of our democracy is that the legislation should make clear that platforms’ duty of care extends to preventing generic harm to our democracy as well as against specific harm to an individual.

We published on June 29 this year, so we all look forward to making full Parliamentary progress with the Bill within the year, preferably, this side of Christmas.

Safety, privacy, protections, none of these are drains of economic activity or innovation, rather, any approach in the area of social media platforms, predicated on inclusive design and the right regulatory framework will enable all to thrive, trade, comment, collaborate, create safely in this space, good for individuals, essential for any richly, rightly diverse democracy.

Read more about the Democracy and Digital Technologies report here.

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