On 10th December 2021 the Bishop of Oxford spoke in a House of Lords debate led by the Archbishop of Canterbury on contemporary challenges to freedom of speech and the role of the public, private and third sectors in upholding it:
The Lord Bishop of Oxford: My Lords, it is a great privilege and honour, as always, to follow the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, one of my distinguished predecessors. I am grateful for this timely debate and to the most reverend Primate for his very comprehensive introduction. In a few days’ time, as we have heard, the scrutiny committee of both Houses will publish its report on the online safety legislation: a potentially vital web of provisions to prevent harm to individuals and, I hope, to society.
The debate around the online safety Bill will raise questions of principle about freedom of speech, and I very much support the most reverend Primate’s case that the free exchange of ideas is a keystone of our society and democracy. In many areas, as we have heard, those freedoms need a more robust defence. In others, the rights of the most vulnerable need protection from harm.
According to Proverbs 15, verse 1:
“A gentle tongue is a tree of life, but perverseness in it breaks the spirit.”
Words can be an immense blessing but, when amplified through social media, also weapons of mass destruction to people and societies. Consequently, as a society, we will need wisdom to discriminate and to make judgments about the limits and boundaries of our freedoms in the light of these new technologies, and this debate in the coming months must avoid lapsing into hollow slogans on either side.
We have seen the rapid evolution and spread of social media over less than 20 years. Regulators have struggled to keep up, or even to reach the starting line. The big tech companies at present largely set their own rules and evaluate their own compliance.
I have learned that the development of ethical guidance for new technologies is not about the invention of new moral codes or principles. It is largely about the sensible translation and application of existing moral standards to the online world, especially in the protection of children, minorities and the most vulnerable. Freedom of speech is indeed to be preserved, but it, too, must be subject, online as offline, to a yet higher law of civility and mutuality. The UK Government have decades of experience in regulating broadcast content around these tensions, and it is this experience which must now be applied to new technologies.
It must be right, therefore, that major corporations which act as publishers of potentially harmful content should have a duty of care both to individuals and to society. A greater share of the immense profits realised in advertising needs to be ploughed back into protection of the vulnerable. Algorithms must be subject to scrutiny, especially when they are shown to amplify hatred and to target those already at risk. There must be robust protection for the young through careful age verification, which is urgently needed.
Anger, hatred and vitriol are all around us because the social media companies have discovered that this is where the greatest profits lie. It would be perfectly possible for social media to bring to the top of our feed stories of faith, hope and love rather than of cruelty and venom. Honest argument and exchange of ideas is one thing, but, at present, opaque microtargeting sold to the highest bidder distorts the societal context of freedom, challenging the very nature of democracy.
A century ago, the British Government took the significant step of establishing the British Broadcasting Corporation in the face of rapidly developing new technology—then, radio. The BBC was founded in an intermediate space: on a strong ethic of public service, including freedom of speech and independence of governance. Public service broadcasting has provided a model of best practice in these debates, alongside the work of regulators.
Is it possible to imagine a similar public service provider for the 21st century, search engines free of advertising, social networking freed from the blind pursuit of profit, messaging services which do not mine our data—and all protecting the rights of the child? Perhaps the Minister could indicate in his reply whether the Government might be willing to explore this kind of radical intervention—social media in public service—in this vital area.
The existing tech sector is urgently in need of both new regulation and a wise regulator, new rules which will enable all to enjoy the benefits of technology without the dangers and, I hope, a new and match-fit regulator in Ofcom. It will be essential that Ofcom itself pays careful attention to gathering wisdom and to the ethical formation of its board and senior team.
We need a public debate on online safety that extends far beyond this Parliament, but I also hope that, as we consider the proposals that will be published in the coming days, we in this Chamber avoid a lazy caricature that uses freedom of speech as some kind of trump card to dissipate all regulation. Instead, I hope and pray that we will, through reason and argument, seek to balance the preservation of those freedoms with robust regulation and a wise and independent regulator.