Bishop of Gloucester urges greater requirements for online platforms to identify and remove harmful content

On 11th January 2018 the House of Lords debated a motion from Baroness Kidron “That this House takes note of the role played by social media and online platforms as news and content publishers.” The Bishop of Gloucester spoke in the debate:

The Lord Bishop of Gloucester: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, for obtaining this debate. I, too, thank her for her tireless work in this area.

Social media and online platforms now play an enormous role in shaping national dialogue and accepted social standards. In my visits to primary schools and secondary schools in the diocese of Gloucester, I have spent time talking with children about social media, and I affirm all that is good. Yet, as children progress to secondary school, their view of themselves and the world is increasingly being shaped by social media and online platforms. Young people are receiving strong messages about worth being about looking a certain way and about success being measured in online likes. Furthermore, their fears about the world they are growing up in are being fuelled by what they read online.

The content we consume shapes how we see ourselves, other people and the world. It is no longer sufficient for social media and online platforms to cling to a simple dichotomy of platform versus publisher in order to escape responsibility for the content they promote and share. While previous generations’ engagement with media might have been limited to print media and television broadcasts regulated by formal standards and watersheds, modern consumers, including children, are exposed to huge swathes of unregulated content. Research conducted by the UK Safer Internet Centre in 2016 found that more than 80% of the teenagers surveyed had seen or heard online hate about a specific group.

While we would be foolish to think that we can legislate for human relationships, we have a responsibility as parliamentarians to create legislation that protects the vulnerable and promotes the kind of society we desire to live in, particularly given problems we have been hearing about around hate speech, fake news and extremist content online. The Communications Committee ​of this House last year produced an extremely valuable report Growing Up with the Internet, and I hope that the Government will take heed of the need for there to be a requirement for firms proactively to develop software to identify and remove harmful content as well as to ensure that design is child-friendly with default settings to protect children’s privacy and safety. I am very disappointed that the Government have chosen not to accept the recommendation of an independent children’s digital champion. I would like to know how there will be effective accountability without that.

I would also like to draw attention to the recent review Intimidation in Public Life published by the Committee on Standards in Public Life. It has a number of helpful suggestions, and I hope that the Minister can assure us that the Government will accept them, in particular, a requirement for social media companies and online platforms to publish quarterly reports on their progress on removing reported content. It would also be good to know from the Minister whether there are plans to monitor the implementation of the legislation in Germany that will fine firms which are insufficiently quick to remove illegal content identified by users.

Alongside the need for such legislation, it is good to know that the BCS, the chartered institute for IT, is endeavouring to facilitate solutions-focused dialogue between social media companies and political parties. I understand that Twitter and Facebook have opted in, and I hope that there will be participation across all political parties. I also hope such dialogue will contribute to legislation rather than being a completely alternative path.

I am grateful for today’s debate and sincerely hope that the outcome of our discussions will have a real impact on how we relate to one another online.


Lord Griffiths of Burry Port (Lab):  It was good to hear the noble Lord, Lord Bew, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Gloucester refer to the Committee for Standards in Public Life and its recent report. It is vital, as the committee put it, to convene a constructive and solutions-focused dialogue between the social media companies and the political parties.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (Lord Ashton of Hyde) (Con): … The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Gloucester, who is my bishop….I might add—I do not mean “my” bishop… I must push on….asked why we are not establishing an independent digital commissioner. The Digital Minister, supporting the Culture Secretary, who is personally invested in raising the level of online safety, plays that convening role on this issue across government.

…The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Gloucester talked about Germany’s new law, under which social media companies are fined for not removing hate speech on their services quickly enough. We are aware of that and, through the digital charter, we will look right across the range of potential solutions for tackling that issue. We will look at steps that other countries, including Germany, are taking to inform this work.