House of Lords report calls for digital controls

15 March 2019

Lords’ report urges improved regulation to tackle online harm

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PEERS have called for the creation of a digital authority with wide powers to safeguard the internet, particularly for children, and to regulate the big technology companies.

In a report published this week, the House of Lords Communications Committee warns that the current “patchwork” of more than a dozen regulators creates both gaps and overlaps, and it accused the technology giants such as Amazon, Facebook, and Google of failing to tackle adequately online harm. It also calls for expanding the part played by OFCOM, to enforce a duty of care on those companies.

The report, Regulating in a Digital World, proposes a set of basic tenets for the authority, including the need to protect young, vulnerable internet users. In a blog coinciding with the report, one committee member, the Bishop of Chelmsford, the Rt Revd Stephen Cottrell (Comment, 25 January), writes: “All sorts of inappropriate and illegal material are available to anyone who has a smart phone in their pocket — whatever their age — from online bullying to do-it-yourself advice on how to self-harm. Things that would not be tolerated offline, flourish in the online environment. Parents in particular feel anxious and out of control.

“Jesus reserves his most stinging opprobrium for those who make life difficult for children. And it is children who are most at risk from an ineffectively regulated internet. Equally important, a faith perspective maintains that human flourishing requires the foundations of a strong and agreed ethical framework. It is this that is lacking online. When other things are wrong in our society, people demand that something must be done. With the internet, people are aware of the problem, but feel powerless. They don’t think anything can be done. But it can.”

The committee’s idea is that “the whole way we interact with the digital world is designed differently so that the services that constitute the digital world can be held accountable to this agreed and enforceable set of principles,” the Bishop writes. “So this isn’t just about mitigating against the worst of the internet’s excesses by making our children more resilient to its harms, as some seem to suggest. It is a whole new approach. And because this is such an important issue for our children’s well-being, for the safeguarding of our democracy, and for the future development of every aspect of our civilisation and learning, the Government must see this as something that they oversee at the highest level possible. It is not an exaggeration to say that the future of our culture depends on it.”

The committee’s chairman, Lord Gilbert of Panteg, said: “Self-regulation by online platforms which host user-generated content, including social-media platforms, is failing. Their moderation processes are unacceptably opaque and slow.

“Harmful, anti-social content — available freely on many platforms — is now greater than ever before. Tech companies have a special responsibility, yet they have not done enough to reduce online harm.”

He called for severer penalties for technology companies breaking the rules, and fines based on a percentage of their global turnover.

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