John Penrose – 2022 Speech on the Online Safety Bill

The speech made by John Penrose, the Conservative MP for Weston-super-Mare, in the House of Commons on 5 December 2022.

It is a pleasure to follow Zach’s MP, the hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Kim Leadbeater). I particularly want to pick up on her final comments about the difficulties of platforms—not just small platforms, but larger ones—hosting extremist content, be it incels, the alt-right, the radical left or any other kind.

I will speak to my new clauses 34 and 35, which seek to deal with both disinformation and misinformation. They are important amendments, because although the Bill has taken huge steps forward—we are led to believe that it may take a couple more in due course when the revised version comes back if the recommittal is passed—there are still whole categories of harm that it does not yet address. In particular, it focuses, rightly and understandably, on individual harms to children and illegal activities as they relate to adults, but it does not yet deal with anything to do with collective harms to our society and our democracy, which matter too.

We have heard from former journalists in this debate. Journalists know it takes time and money to come up with a properly researched, authoritatively correct, accurate piece of journalism, but it takes a fraction of that time and cost to invent a lie. A lie will get halfway around the world before the truth has got its boots on, as the saying rightly goes. Incidentally, the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) said that it is wonderful that we are all learning so much. I share that sentiment; it is marvellous that we are all comparing and sharing our particular areas of expertise.

One person who seems to have all areas of expertise under his belt is my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins), who chaired the Joint Committee. He rightly pointed out that this is a systems Bill, and it therefore deals with trying to prevent some things from happening—and yet it is completely silent on misinformation and disinformation, and their effect on us collectively, as a society and a democracy. New clauses 34 and 35 are an attempt to begin to address those collective harms alongside some individual harms we face. One of them deals with a duty of balance; the other deals with factual accuracy.

The duty of balance is an attempt to address the problem as it relates to filter bubbles, because this is a systems Bill and because each of us has a tailored filter bubble, by which each of the major platforms, and some of the minor ones, work out what we are interested in and feed us more of the same. That is fine for people who are interested in fishing tackle; that is super. But if someone is interested in incels and they get fed more and more incel stuff, or they are vaguely left wing and get taken down a rabbit hole into the increasingly radical left—or alternatively alt-right, religious extremism or whatever it may be—pretty soon they get into echo chambers, and from echo chambers they get into radicalisation, and from radicalisation they can pretty soon end up in some very murky, dark and deep waters.

There are existing rules for other old-world broadcasters; the BBC, ITV and all the other existing broadcasters have a duty of balance and undue prominence imposed on them by Ofcom. My argument is that we should consider ways to impose a similar duty of balance on the people who put together the programs that create our own individual filter bubbles, so that when someone is shown an awful lot of stuff about incels, or alt-right or radical left politics, somewhere in that filter bubble they will be sent something saying, “You do know that this is only part of the argument, don’t you? Do you know that there is another side to this? Here’s the alternative; here’s the balancing point.” We are not doing that at the moment, which is one of the reasons we have an increasingly divided societal and political debate, and that our public square as a society is becoming increasingly more fractious—and dangerous, in some cases. New clause 35 would fix that particular problem.

New clause 34 would deal with the other point—the fact that a lie will get halfway around the world before the truth has got its boots on. It tries to deal with factual accuracy. Factual accuracy is not quite the same thing as truth. Truth is an altogether larger and more philosophical concept to get one’s head around. It is how we string together accurate and correct facts to create a narrative or an explanation. Factual accuracy is an essential building block for truth. We must at least try to ensure that we can all see when someone has made something up or invented something, whether it is that bleach is a good way to cure covid or whatever. When somebody makes something up, we need to know and it needs to be clear. In many cases that is clear, but in many cases, if it is a plausible lie, a deepfake or whatever it may be, it is not clear. We need to be able to see that easily, quickly and immediately, and say, “I can discount this, because I know that the person producing it is a serial liar and tells huge great big porkies, and I shouldn’t be trusting what they are sending me, or I can see that the actual item itself is clearly made up.”

The duty of achieving balance already exists in rules and law in other parts of our society and is tried and tested—it has stood us very well and done a good job for us for 40 or 50 years, since TV and radio became ubiquitous—and the same is true, although not for quite such a long time, for factual accuracy. There are increasingly good methods of checking the factual accuracy of individual bits of content, and if necessary, in some cases of doing so in real time, too. For example, Adobe is leading a very large global grouping producing something called the Content Authenticity Initiative, which can tell if something is a deepfake, because it has an audit trail of where the image, the item or whatever it may be came from and how it has been updated, modified or changed during the course of its life.

Dean Russell

On that point, I want to raise the work that my hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth (Dr Evans), who is not in the Chamber at the moment, has done on body image. When images are photo-shopped and changed to give an idea of beauty that is very different from what is possible in the real world, that very much falls into the idea of truth. What are my hon. Friend’s thoughts on that point?

John Penrose

Addressing that is absolutely essential. That goes for any of the deepfake examples we have heard about, including from my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Dame Maria Miller), because if we know that something has been changed—and the whole point about deepfake is that it is hard to tell—we can tell easily and say, “I know that is not right, I know that is not true, I know that is false, and I can aim away from it and treat it accordingly”.

Just to make sure that everybody understands, this is not some piece of new tech magic; it is already established. Adobe, as I have said, is doing it with the Content Authenticity Initiative, which is widely backed by other very serious tech firms. Others in the journalism world are doing the same thing, with the Journalism Trust Initiative. There is NewsGuard, which produces trust ratings; the Trust Project, which produces trust indicators; and we of course have our own press regulators in this country, the Independent Press Standards Organisation and IMPRESS.

I urge the Government and all here present not to be satisfied with where this Bill stands now. We have all heard how it can be improved. We have all heard that this is a new, groundbreaking and difficult area in which many other countries have not even got as far as we have, but we should not be in any way satisfied with where we are now. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kenilworth and Southam (Sir Jeremy Wright) said earlier that we need to approach this Bill in a spirit of being humble, and this is an area in which humility is absolutely essential. I hope all of us realise how much further we have to go, and I hope the Minister will say how he proposes to address these important and so far uncovered issues in due course.