Freedom of Speech and the role of society

A debate on the contemporary challenges to freedom of speech and the role of public, private and civil society sectors in its upholding was introduced to the House of Lords by the Archbishop of Canterbury on Friday 10 December. The Bishop of Oxford spoke in the debate. Read the text of his speech, or watch on Bishop Steven’s Facebook page.

My Lords, I am grateful for this timely debate and to the Archbishop for his comprehensive introduction. In a few days’ time, the Scrutiny Committee of both Houses will publish their report on the Online Safety Legislation: a potentially vital web of provisions to prevent harm to individuals and, I hope, to society.

The debate around the Online Safety Bill will raise questions of principle around freedom of speech. I support the Archbishop’s case that the free exchange of ideas is a keystone of our society. In many areas, those freedoms do need a more robust defence. In others the rights of the most vulnerable need protection from harm.

“A gentle tongue is a tree of life (according to Proverbs 15.1) but perverseness in it breaks the spirit.”

Words can be an immense blessing but, when amplified through social media, also weapons of mass destruction to people and societies.

Consequently, as a society, we will need wisdom: to discriminate, to make judgements about the limits and boundaries of our freedoms in the light of these new technologies: this debate must avoid lapsing into hollow slogans on either side.

We have seen the rapid evolution and spread of social media over less than twenty years. Regulators have struggled to keep up, or even reach the starting line. The Big Tech companies at present largely set their own rules and evaluate their own compliance.

The development of ethical guidance for new technologies is not about the invention of new moral codes or principles. It is largely about the sensible translation and application of existing moral standards to the online world, especially in the protection of children, minorities and the vulnerable. Freedom of speech is indeed to be preserved but it too must be subject, online as offline, to a yet higher law of civility and mutuality. The UK government has decades of experience in regulating broadcast content around these tensions. It is this experience which must now be applied to new technologies.

It must be right therefore that major corporations who act as publishers of potentially harmful content should have a duty of care both to individuals and to society: a greater share of the immense profits realised in advertising needs to be ploughed back into the protection of the vulnerable. Algorithms must be subject to scrutiny, especially when they are shown to amplify hatred and target those already at risk. There must be robust protection for the young through careful age verification which is urgently needed. Anger and hatred and vitriol are all around us because social media companies have discovered that this is where the greatest profits lie. It is perfectly possible for a social media company to bring to the top of our feed stories of faith, hope, and love rather than of cruelty and venom. Honest argument and exchange of ideas is one thing: but at present opaque micro-targeting sold to the highest bidder distorts the societal context of freedom, changing the very nature of democracy.

A century ago, the British government took the significant step of establishing the British Broadcasting Corporation in the face of rapidly developing new technology. The BBC was founded on a strong ethic of public service including freedom of speech and independence of government. Public service broadcasting has provided a model of best practice in these debates. Is it possible to imagine a similar public service provider of search engines free of advertising, of social networking freed from the blind pursuit of profit, of messaging services that do not plunder our data and all protecting the rights of the child? Perhaps the minister could indicate in his reply whether the government might be willing to explore this kind of radical intervention in this vital area.

The existing tech sector is urgently in need of both new regulation and a wise regulator: new rules which will enable all to enjoy the benefits of technology without the dangers and, I hope, a new and match fit regulator in OFCOM. It will be essential that OFCOM itself pays careful attention to gathering wisdom and to ethical formation in its board and senior team.

My Lords, we need a public debate on online safety which extends far beyond this Parliament. But I also hope that, as we consider the proposals which will be published in the coming days, we will avoid in this chamber a lazy caricature that uses freedom of speech as some kind of trump card to dissipate all regulation. Instead, I hope (and pray) that we will, through reason and argument, seek to balance the preservation of those freedoms with robust regulation and a wise and independent regulator.

Further reading

House of Lords Library: Freedom of speech: challenges and the role of public, private and civil society sectors in upholding rights

Watch Bishop Steven’s speech on his Facebook page