Online ‘pandemic of misinformation’ poses existential threat to UK’s democracy, report says

Parliamentary committee calls for fines of up to 4% of global turnover for tech giants which fail to stem inaccurate content

Andrew Woodcock
Political Editor
Monday 29 June 2020 07:46 BST
A Facebook App logo is displayed on a smartphone in Arlington, Virginia
A Facebook App logo is displayed on a smartphone in Arlington, Virginia (AFP)

An online ‘pandemic of misinformation’ is posing an existential threat to the UK’s democracy and way of life, according to a chilling parliamentary report.

The report accused government ministers of failing to get to grips with the urgency of the challenges of the digital age.

And it called for immediate action to rein in tech giants, including new powers for proposed online harms regulator Ofcom to fine digital companies up to 4 per cent of their global turnover or force ISP blocking of serial offenders.

The report from the House of Lords Democracy and Digital Technologies Committee called for Ofcom to be given the power to hold digital platforms legally responsible for content they recommend to large audiences or that is produced by users with a large following.

And it said online platforms should be required to be transparent in how their algorithms work so they are not operating in ways that discriminate against minorities.

The cross-party committee called on the government to press ahead without delay on the publication of a promised Online Harms Bill to give Ofcom powers to regulate the online world.

Its report said that online platforms are not “inherently ungovernable” but warned power has been ceded to a “few unelected and unaccountable digital corporations” including Facebook and Google, and politicians must act now to hold them to account when they are shown to negatively influence public debate and undermine democracy.

The report also called for political advertising to be brought into line with other advertising in the requirement for truth and accuracy.

And it said that the 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 elections and referendums.

Committee chair Lord Puttnam 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.

“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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