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Act now to combat ‘pandemic of misinformation’, warns Lords committee

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The House of Lords Committee on Democracy and Digital Technologies has warned that the UK government must take more urgent action to stem the spread of harmful misinformation.

The Lords committee has concluded that misinformation proliferating on social media platforms does real harm to individuals, wider society and democratic processes.

While online platforms are not “inherently ungovernable”, power has been concentrated in a small number of unelected and unaccountable corporations such as Facebook and Google, it said. Politicians must hold these corporations to account when they fail to act on seriously harmful content.

“We are living through a time in which trust is collapsing. People no longer have faith that they can rely on the information they receive or believe what they are told. That is absolutely corrosive for democracy,” said Lord David Puttnam, who chairs the committee.

“Part of the reason for the decline in trust is the unchecked power of digital platforms. These international behemoths exercise great power without any matching accountability, often denying responsibility for the harm some of the content they host can cause, while continuing to profit from it.”

Puttnam said that the Covid-19 pandemic had demonstrated the real-life damage caused by misinformation and disinformation and that it is time for the government to “get a grip” on the issue.

Puttnam and his colleagues have put forward a set of reforms which they hope will restore public trust and bolster democracy.

First, the committee has demanded that the government publishes its Online Harms Draft Bill, a highly-anticipated piece of legislation which covers online harms such as terrorist propaganda, child exploitation and state-backed disinformation. The new law will give Ofcom powers to regulate the online platforms. The committee said that Ofcom must be given the power to fine digital companies up to four per cent of their global turnover (the same maximum fine permitted by GDPR for data privacy infringements) or force ISPs to block serial offenders.

It also recommended that Ofcom force platforms to be transparent with regards to how their algorithms work, in order to identify and prevent discrimination against minority groups.

During this online harms inquiry, the committee expressed frustration at the apparent delay of the bill. While the government published its Online Harms White Paper more than a year ago, there have been concerns about its progress, particularly given the disruption to parliamentary timetables caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Secondly, the committee has called for political advertising to be brought into line with other advertising with regards to requirements for accuracy and transparency. It recommended a code of practice which would ban “fundamentally inaccurate advertising during a parliamentary or mayoral election or referendum”. They proposed that this code would be enforced by a committee including representatives from the Advertising Standards authority, Electoral Commission, Ofcom, and UK Statistics Authority, which would have the power to remove misleading political advertising.

Thirdly, the committee suggested the establishment of an independent ombudsman for content moderation which would review appeals for individuals dissatisfied with how digital platforms handle their cases. Facebook is in the process of establishing a semi-independent board which would be able to review Facebook’s own content moderation decisions.

The committee also recommended increasing digital media literacy through changes to the school curriculum, as well as introducing adult digital literacy initiatives.

“[The government] should start by taking steps to immediately bring forward a Draft Online Harms Bill. We heard that on the current schedule the legislation may not be in place until 2024. That is clearly unacceptable,” Puttnam said.

“We have set out a programme for change that, taken as a whole, can allow our democratic institutions to wrestle power back from unaccountable corporations and begin the slow process of restoring trust. Technology is not a force of nature and can be harnessed for the public good. The time to do so is now.”

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