Crime, Economy, Education, European Union, House of Lords, Parliament, Speeches

Trade Bill

Posted by Lord Sheikh

I support Amendment 34 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron. While the internet is a space for innovation, expression and communication, it can also be damaging. As our digital world develops and innovates, so do the risks of online harm. Children are increasingly exposed to inappropriate content, grooming, harassment, malicious behaviour, misinformation and breaches of privacy. Two-thirds of vulnerable children and young people, supported by Barnardo’s sexual exploitation service, were groomed online before meeting their abuser in person.

Social media companies have failed to prioritise children’s safety. Last year, the NSPCC found that more than 70% of reported grooming took place on the main social media networks—Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and Snapchat. The global platforms are not taking enough responsibility for content on their sites, or being held accountable. More needs to be done to verify user identities, monitor harmful content and handle reports of abuse effectively. Harmful content and activities have a damaging effect on children’s mental and physical well-being and can lead to exploitation, trafficking, substance abuse and radicalisation. Those impacts are rarely short term; they stay with the children for the rest of their lives.

The UK is committed to being the safest place in the world to be online, and we must do more. We need better safeguards, and I urge the Government to prioritise the online harms Bill, which will be world leading in safety requirements and holding the industry accountable. As we leave the European Union and continue to develop our place in the digital world, we must ensure that our standards and goals are not jeopardised. We recently signed a trade deal with Japan; this historic agreement will advance digital standards through data provisions that maintain and improve digital safety. This year, Japan was ranked first in the child online safety index for low cyber risks. Those risks refer to bullying, misuse of technology, the detrimental effect of gaming and social media, and exposure to violent and sexual content.

In the UK-Japan trade deal, the rights and protection of children online have not been undermined, as Japan shares a similar ambition to ours for legislative standards. But what will happen when we look to sign with other countries that do not have the same level of protection? Unlike Japan, the United States came 22nd out of 30 countries in the child online safety index for cyber risks.

Although this is only one aspect of the index, it shows that children are particularly at risk online in the United States. We cannot expose our children to the same abuse. The new trade agreement between the US, Mexico and Canada has created a legal shield for tech companies, whereby the service providers are not held liable for content on their platforms or the harm it may cause to users. This fails to hold social media companies to account, and is not an effective safeguard for children.

Supporting the amendment would mean that our existing protections could not be traded away, and would ensure that we could fulfil our duty of care to children. If we do not support the amendment, we risk undermining our commitment to create a safer world ?online for the protection of children. Furthermore, if we do not do this, we could cause a situation in which social media giants are not transparent in how they deal with abuse online, and may be less accountable.

The pandemic has reinforced the importance of the digital world in our lives. When we return to normality, we must have better safeguards. We should not just maintain our existing safeguards; we should endeavour to strengthen them. The amendment would mean at least that our existing laws, and therefore the rights of our children, were protected. I hope that it will be accepted.

See full debate on Hansard. 

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