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Baroness Howe of Idlicote: My Lords, in supporting the amendment of the noble Earl, Lord Northesk, I shall try and be brief. I could not, in any event, argue a case as effectively and expertly as the noble Earl.
It is indeed a strange anomaly, as the noble Earl pointed out both today and in Committee, that something broadcast via the Internet should not be subject to Ofcom regulation while the same broadcast received by the more traditional methods of television and radio sets is. Issues about human rights and privacy are surely possible here.
Everyone is keen to keep the Internet free of regulation but I wonder whether it remains feasible in the long run. The noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, said in Committee that a globally agreed solution was needed. In the long term that clearly must be right. The interim problem remains. The Internet Watch Foundation does its best, but most of us have a growing feeling of unease about the kind of damaging material that can easily be accessed by an increasing range of receivers, not least 3G mobile telephones, which an increasing number of young people already possess or to which they aspire. The Minister told us in Committee that consultations had begun and that powers would be brought in via the European Communications Act 1972. Giving additional powers to Ofcom would therefore not be helpful or necessary. As I said in Committee, it may not be possible or everybody's wish to regulate the Internet but citizens' concerns about whether voluntary regulation is likely to remain sufficient are increasing, given the material that is easily accessed on the Internet. If only to future proof this legislation, which we are told will not be outdated for many years, it would make sense for Ofcom, which is to be responsible for regulating almost every other form of electronic communication network, to be given some role in setting standards at least for the
Lord Avebury: My Lords, having looked carefully at what the Minister said in Committee on 29th April I still do not understand how this is going to work. As the noble Earl, Lord Northesk, explained, we have one system of regulation of privacy when we are dealing with radio and television. Another system, as the Minister explained in Committee, is going to come into effect at some time in the future under the European Communities Act 1972. The Minister said that this was necessary because the regulations that are to be introduced under that Act would go beyond the remit of Ofcom. It would be useful if the Minister explained what is happening in the consultations which he spoke of in Committee. These started at the end of March and are still under way. What sort of solution does he think will be produced at the end of the day? Will the European regulations that he mentioned feed back into Ofcom's remit? Will they require Ofcom to apply the European directive into radio and television so that a uniform system applies across the board of electronic communications? Or are we going to have two completely different systems of dealing with privacy, one for radio and television and another for other forms of electronic communication?
Perhaps the Minister will also explain something that I find mysterious. We all agreed it was impossible to regulate the Internet, but at col. 647 of the Official Report of 29th April 2003 the Minister spoke about the directive introducing new e-mail and Internet controls. I am sure your Lordships would like to know more about that, and whether it is being dealt with under these consultations.
Lord St John of Bletso: My Lords, I support this amendment. My concern is the ever-increasing scourge of spamming. Certainly, the noble Earl, Lord Northesk, has spoken about the forthcoming European legislation, but there does need to be a standard to control abuses of the Internet. I am not referring only to spamming, but to distribution of malicious viruses, hacking and, of course, the proliferation of unsolicited pornography. I do not call for Internet regulation, as mentioned by my noble friend Lady Howe, but more a light-touch approach.
It is a commonly held view that the Internet was included in the Bill as an afterthought. I hope that the Minister, who has an excellent grasp of the exigencies of the world wide web, will look with some sympathy on the amendment.
Lord Lucas: My Lords, I wish to support the amendment, too. There is now no boundary between the Internet and radio and television. I spend more time listening to the radio on the Internet than over the airwaves now, as it is so easy simply to have it running in the background once one has a broadband connection. We are about to have parliamentary broadcasting over the web. Doubtless other broadcasters will follow as we start to get decent broadband connections.
The Internet is another extension of radio and television. Already services have started up that are available only over the Internet. Why start a pirate radio programme now, with all the difficulties of legislation and people trying to close it down, when the same thing can be done over the Internet with the same quality of reception? It is all one, and it is ridiculous that half should be in and half out.
The Earl of Liverpool: My Lords, I support the amendment tabled by my noble friend Lord Northesk, who spoke with much more authority than I am able to on the subject. The words that rang in my ear when he spoke were that an independent liberty should not be infringed. I support him. If he presses the amendment, I shall be with him in the Lobby.
Baroness Howarth of Breckland: My Lords, I want to ask a question rather than make a long speech. For 10 years I was a regulator in the premium-rate industry. At the end of that time in ICSTIS, we talked a great deal about convergence, rather as the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, just described. I thought that the Bill would look across the horizon to the future when all the services would converge. Indeed, since I left ICSTIS, there seems to have been even greater integration of services. Will the Bill look towards that integration, or will we have two kinds of regulation in future?
Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, in introducing the amendment, the noble Earl, Lord Northesk, very properly gave my reasons for resisting it last time. I am very grateful to him for that, and those reasons still stand. He described them as outwardly reasonable, but I think that I can show that they are both outwardly and inwardly reasonable. He asked me a number of questions, and other noble Lords have also asked questions, about what we propose to do. I had better repeat itI caught myself almost saying "very briefly". If I do, I shall leave the Chamber. I am getting so angry with that phrase, which is followed by long speeches, so I stopped myself in time.
When we debated the amendment in April, we said that the use of the electronic communications networks was subject to a separate European directive on privacy and electronic communications, which will be implemented by 31st October this year using the provisions of the European Communities Act 1972 instead of other primary legislation. I shall answer all the points made about that, and why we consider it better to act that way.
The noble Earl, Lord Northesk, asked how his amendment was inconsistent with the provisions of the privacy and electronic communications directive. There are a number of detailed inconsistencies, but one of very great importance is that Ofcom is not the appropriate body to enforce privacy standards in networks and services. That role is to be performed by the Information Commissioner, who is of course the successor in role to the Data Protection Registrar. He
The Information Commissioner has a wider range of duties including the promotion of good information handling and the encouragement of codes of practice for data controllersthat is, anyone who decides how and why personal data about identifiable living individuals are processed. He is responsible for the current regulations, and will be for the regulations that we shall introduce this year. That answers nearly all the points made by other noble Lords about the need for effective regulation. Regulation is much more effective if done by the Information Commissioner than by Ofcom, which has a different range of responsibilities.
The noble Earl, Lord Northesk, then said that the provisions by secondary legislation would be in abeyance, and that they would not meet the deadline of 13th December. The answer to that is that they will be in force by 31st October. They will meet the deadline; there will be no delay in implementing what he and other noble Lords want. He criticised the difference between primary and secondary legislation. We use secondary legislation when we are able to do so in law. There is no difference in effect between primary and secondary legislation. It is still the law of the land; however, we did not need to burden the Bill with that element of relatively uncontroversial primary legislation.
The noble Earl raised the issue of global agreement, because he thought that I was too welcoming of the idea that regulation through the European directive on privacy and electronic communications was to come into force throughout Europe. I think that he recognises that that is better than its doing so only for the UK. He is right, of course, in saying that the search for global agreement is rather further off, but I do not think that that supports his amendment.
We are doing everything that the noble Earl, Lord Northesk, wants with equal effect, and much more effectively in terms of the responsibility being with the Information Commissioner. We are also doing it on time. What more do we want?
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