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Digital Technology and the Resurrection of Trust a Report by the House of Lords Select committee on democracy and digital technologies

"Our Committee is delivering this report to Parliament in the middle of an unprecedented health and consequential economic crisis. But our report focuses on a different form of crisis, one with roots that extend far deeper, and are likely to last far longer than Covid-19. This is a virus that affects all of us in the UK - a pandemic of ‘misinformation’ and ‘disinformation’."

- Lord Puttnam, Chair of the Committee

Who we are

Established in June 2019, the Select Committee on Democracy and Digital Technologies was a cross-party, multidisciplinary group of peers, tasked with investigating how digital technology can be used to support rather than undermine democracy.

The Committee received 108 written submissions and heard oral evidence from 66 witnesses across academia, defence, media, and education. In our report we make forty-five recommendations, including urgent reform of electoral law and measures to become a digitally literate society. We urge the Government to implement them.

We believe this report sets out a way whereby digital technology is no longer in danger of undermining democracy but rather where the wonders of technology can support democracy and restore public trust.

Informed citizens

The digital and social media landscape is dominated by two behemoths–Facebook and Google. They largely pass under the radar, operating outside the rules that govern electoral politics. They can and should be bound by the same restraints that we apply to the rest of society.

The Government must make sure that online platforms bear ultimate responsibility for the content that their algorithms promote. Where harmful content spreads virally on their service or where it is posted by users with a large audience, they should face sanctions over their output as other broadcasters do.

We recommend that political parties should work with the Advertising Standards Authority and other regulators to develop a code of practice that would ban fundamentally inaccurate advertising during a parliamentary or mayoral election or referendum.

The public needs to have access to high quality public interest journalism to help inform them about current events. Fair funding is needed to support such journalism.

Accountability

There is a need for Government leadership and regulatory capacity to match the scale of challenges and opportunities that the online world presents.

The Government’s Online Harms programme presents a significant first step towards this goal. It needs to happen; it needs to happen fast; and the necessary draft legislation must be laid before Parliament for scrutiny without delay.

The Government must not flinch in the face of the inevitable and powerful lobbying of Big Tech and others that benefit from the current situation.

The Government must make sure that online platforms bear ultimate responsibility for the content that their algorithms promote. Where harmful content spreads virally on their service or where it is posted by users with a large audience, they should face sanctions over their output as other broadcasters do.

Individual users need greater protection too. They must have redress against large platforms through an ombudsman tasked with safeguarding the rights of citizens.

Transparency

Transparency of online platforms is essential if democracy is to flourish. Platforms like Facebook and Google seek to hide behind “black box” algorithms which choose what content users are shown. They take the position that their decisions are not responsible for harms that may result from online activity.

This is plain wrong. The decisions platforms make in designing and training these algorithmic systems shape the conversations that happen online.

For this reason, we recommend that platforms be mandated to conduct audits to show how in creating these algorithms they have ensured, for example, that they are not discriminating against certain groups.

We believe Ofcom, as the proposed Online Harms regulator, must have the powers to oversee these decisions, with the right to acquire the information from platforms they need to exercise their powers.

Inclusive debate across society

Democracy must not be allowed to decline into irrelevance in the digital era, but we must ensure that we use technology appropriately, so that technology becomes the servant of democracy, and not vice versa.

Technology can play an important role in engaging people with democratic processes. However, Parliament and government, at all levels, should not seek to use technology simply to reduce costs, and must ensure that appropriate technology is used to enhance and enrich democratic engagement.

Parliament, and national, devolved and local government must acquire and develop greater digital capacity and skills to facilitate digital democratic engagement.

Free and fair elections

Electoral law must be completely updated for an online age. There have been no major changes to electoral law since the invention of social media and the rise of online political advertising.

The Government must completely reform electoral law. As part of this, the Electoral Commission needs the powers to obtain the information necessary to understand when individuals are breaking the rules and to be able to set fines that act as a real deterrent against flagrant breaches.

As part of the reform of electoral law, we recommend the maximum fine the Electoral Commission can levy should be raised to £500,000 or four per cent of a campaign’s total spend, whichever is greater.

Active digital citizens

We must empower citizens, young and old, to take part as critical users of information. We need to create a programme of lifelong education that will equip people with the skills they need to be active citizens.

People need to be taught from a very young age about the ways in which platforms shape their online experience.

The Department for Education should review the school curriculum to ensure that pupils are equipped with all the skills needed in a modern digital world. Critical digital media literacy should be embedded across the curriculum.

Platforms must also be made more intelligible to users. They should ensure that their services empower users to exercise their rights online. The public need to understand how their data is being used and an obligation of fairness by design should be a core element in ensuring platforms meet their duty of care to their users.

"Trust, be it in Government, the media, the giant digital platforms, or civil society generally must be resurrected, and then reinforced every day in the discussion and implementation of each policy decision."

- Lord Puttnam, Chair of the Committee

Credits:

Created with images by Caspar Camille Rubin - "Some of my every day working and entertainment tools ;)" • Bianca Sbircea-Constantin - "Portugal " • EliasSch - "server space the server room" • Arif Riyanto - "A Software Engineer" • luxstorm - "london bus big ben parliament bridge" • Edvin Johansson - "untitled image"