The Government must act to deal with a “pandemic of misinformation” which poses a threat to democracy, a report by a House of Lords select committee has said.
It calls on Boris Johnson’s Government to publish its Online Harms Bill immediately to ensure that tech giants are properly held to account for misinformation spreading on their platforms.
In its report, the Lords Committee on Democracy and Digital Technologies says that power online had been ceded to a “few unelected and unaccountable digital corporations” such as Facebook and Google, and regulation is needed to prevent these firms negatively influencing public debate and democracy.
A number of organisations have warned of the spread of misinformation online, particularly during and in relation to the coronavirus lockdown and – despite introducing steps to promote accurate health information – platforms such as Facebook have been criticised for failing to remove misleading content.
As well as calling for legislation to be brought forward, the committee said broadcast regulator Ofcom should be given the power to fine digital companies and even block access to their platforms as punishment for failing to protect users.
Earlier this year, the Government published its first proposals for the Online Harms Bill, where it said it was “minded” to appoint Ofcom as the online regulator.
The report also calls for political advertising to be brought into line with other forms of advertising in terms of requirements around truth and accuracy, and for a code of practice to be developed with the Advertising Standards Authority.
The Lords committee recommends a digital ombudsman should be introduced to oversee the moderation of online content and provide a point of appeal for those who take issue with a moderation decision taken by a platform.
Lord Puttnam, chair of the committee said: “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.
“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.
“We’ve seen clear evidence of this in recent months through a dangerous rise of misinformation about Covid-19. We have become aware of the ways in which misinformation can damage an individual’s health along with a growing number of instances where it is our collective democratic health that’s under threat.
“That must stop – it is time for the Government to get a grip of this issue. They 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.”
Among its other recommendations, the committee suggests improving digital media literacy as a means of fighting misinformation.
“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,” Lord Puttnam said.
“Technology is not a force of nature and can be harnessed for the public good. The time to do so is now.”
Louise Edwards, director of regulation at the Electoral Commission, welcomed the report.
She said: “We know that digital political campaigning can be a force for good, but many voters are increasingly concerned about truth, transparency and the targeting of political advertisements.
“Despite the rapidly expanding use of digital tools in political campaigning, the regulatory regime has not changed to keep pace.
“Making clear who is behind digital campaigns, providing more information on the money being spent on online advertising, and increasing the sanctions for those breaking the rules are sensible and widely-supported proposals.”