Bishop of Chelmsford calls for better regulation to protect online spaces

Chelmsford310119aOn 12th June 2019 the House of Lords debated a report from the Communications Committee, “That this House takes note of the Report from the Communications Committee Regulating in a digital world (2nd Report, HL Paper 299).” The Bishop of Chelmsford, Rt Revd Stephen Cottrell, who served on the Committee, spoke in the debate.

The Government have already committed themselves to making the United Kingdom the safest place in the world to be online. The ideas in this report explain that this does not necessarily require more regulation, but a different approach to regulation. It is not an exaggeration to say that this is one of the big moral challenges of our day. We need to get it right, especially for our children, for there are no longer two worlds, the online and offline, but the one digital environment that we all inhabit and that needs a set of principles to govern not just its oversight but its future development.

When I take my child to the park or cinema, go to a restaurant, travel by public transport, go shopping or, to escape the hustle and bustle of either this place or my day job, lie on the beach or snooze on a park bench in Parliament Square, those who own and manage these spaces have responsibilities to those of us who use them. These responsibilities are laid out in legislation overseen by various different bodies. However, behind it is the principle that we have responsibilities of mutual care and respect. If the salad Niçoise I order in the restaurant is dressed with bleach, or the film has no guidance about the appropriate age for a child to watch it, or the deck chair I hire gives me splinters in unmentionable places—I will not say what I was going to say; I have to remember I am a Bishop; with this outfit it should not be difficult—those who have responsibility for the space are liable.

We have a phrase for this in the English language: common sense. However, common sense is rooted in a thoughtful and developed moral tradition whereby we recognise our common humanity and resolve to live by an agreed set of principles and standards. The digital world cannot be exempt from this moral framework. Neither is it sufficient for regulators to mitigate and alleviate its worst excesses. Why should we have to ask Facebook to take things down? Would it not be better if they were never put up in the first place?

This need not curb free speech. In fact, in the ever-increasing world of fake news and all the rest of it, it might be the salvation of free speech—for freedom is not freedom to say what I like and do as I please without regard to others, but to be free to do what we must to serve the good of all.

Self-regulation is manifestly failing. A few powerful companies dominate the digital landscape. They say they are platforms, with little or no responsibility for those who walk upon them, but they are actually public spaces with a duty of care to those who enter. I am pleased that the Government have embraced that concept but they seem reluctant to fully embrace the principles-based approach to the internet that this report recommends. The principles-based approach is, yes, to regulation but also, critically, it is to policy and development so that we might create a different future. We believe that will require an overarching body, as the noble Lord, Lord Gilbert, has explained, that we call the digital authority. However, if we do this it might break the Gordian knot of a tangle of competing bodies and rules and therefore hold the possibility of the UK taking a lead on an issue that is significantly rising up the agenda of public concern and we ask the Government to look at it again. Those clever algorithms which are so good at selling us stuff could be used to design the internet differently. What is now required is the political will to make it happen.

Finally, I remind the House of the regulations which have already been introduced. Several bishops, including myself, recently wrote to the Information Commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, in support of what I think is called—the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, will correct me later if I have got it wrong—the kids’ code that has been put forward in draft. We made the point that the online world shares the offline world’s ethical duty to differentiate between children and adults and to respect and protect both the vulnerable and the marginalised in the digital world.

We cited the example—hey, we are bishops and this is the way we do things—of Jesus’s most famous story of the Good Samaritan, where the Good Samaritan crosses boundaries in order to transcend the normal ways in which we do things in the different social and political jurisdictions we inhabit. Likewise, the tech sector and the digital world need to accept the demands of responsibility above profitability and to acknowledge their corporate responsibility to uphold the common good. We are concerned that the Government may row back from their commitment to introduce this code and fulfil their responsibility to children.

In the coming days, we will write to the Secretary of State on this matter. However, importantly, for this debate today, let us not keep reimagining a better future without also grasping the opportunity for that future to start today.


The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (Lord Ashton of Hyde) (Con):…The noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, the right reverend Prelate and the noble Baronesses, Lady Harding and Lady Kidron, talked about age-appropriate design. The right reverend Prelate was concerned that we would row back from this. Age-appropriate design, or the kids’ charter—or, as I call it, the Kidron charter—is a part of the wider approach to tackling online harms and will play a key role in delivering robust protections for children online. We discussed it at length on the Bill. The ICO has been consulted formally on the code and will continue to engage with industry. We are aware that the industry has raised concerns—the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, mentioned some of them—but it is not beyond the wit of such an innovative industry to deal with those technical concerns. It is important that the ICO continues to work with the industry to make sure that the measures are workable and deliver the robust protection that children deserve. The ICO has a reputation as a proportionate regulator and we will stand behind it.