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Internet Regulation (Material Inciting Gang Violence)

Volume 535: debated on Tuesday 8 November 2011

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No.23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to give courts the power to order internet service providers to remove certain material which incites gang violence; and for connected purposes.

I am introducing this Bill because I am appalled by the proliferation of online videos glorifying gangs and serious youth violence. The police, via the courts and internet service providers, need to be given explicit power to get these videos taken down or to get access to them blocked. These videos act as a recruitment mechanism for gangs. I believe they lead to an increased number of young people in our cities who feel the need to carry a knife for protection and they terrify any ordinary human being who watches them.

I first came across these videos last year, when a constituent contacted me after his son had been the victim of a gang-related mugging. He sent me links to a video that was up on YouTube of the gang that had robbed his son. The video was filmed in broad daylight in a car park in the heart of Catford. It contained images of 10 to 15 young men—perhaps I should say boys—rapping, swearing and waving knives around as if they were cigarettes. The video boasts about violence; it is menacing, sickening and frightening. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of these sorts of videos on the internet, not just on YouTube, but on sites such as Spiff TV. If someone types “Brixton gangs”, “Hackney gangs” or “Lewisham gangs” into any online audio-visual search facility, they will find these videos. Not all contain images of knives, but the narrative is the same, “Mess with us and we’ll stab you.” These videos have been viewed tens of thousands of times each—sometimes hundreds of thousands of times.

Over the past year, I have attempted to interest the Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice in this issue, but my letters and contributions in debates have fallen on deaf ears. Last week, the Government launched their report into ending gang and serious youth violence, but it contains almost no mention of the internet. I find that remarkable, short-sighted and out of touch. We know that the internet is increasingly central to people’s everyday lives—that applies to young people in particular. Indeed, some research suggests that teenagers spend as much as 31 hours per week online. The popularity and accessibility of the internet means that it is inevitably one of the ways through which young people get caught up in the madness of youth violence, yet this Government seem to be ignoring it.

These videos frighten me and they will frighten young people too. Every one of us here today knows that carrying a knife is wrong. Some of us will also know that if a young person carries a knife, it is probably as likely to end up injuring them as anyone else. But we also know that many young people carry knives out of fear. They may not start out to stab someone but, as we all know, too often that becomes the tragic reality. As Patrick Regan says in his book “Fighting Chance”:

“The truth is that, for many, the everyday fear of gangs and what they can do to you is far greater than the fear of being caught and going to prison”.

Do we not owe it to the young people who are viewing this stuff online to make them feel safer? These are not videos filmed in some make-believe American gangland. No, these are videos filmed in our own communities—in our car parks, our town centres and on our housing estates. They are filmed in easily recognisable locations where my constituents will walk on a regular basis.

Currently, one of the only ways that this material is removed from the net is if enough people flag the video, via YouTube’s online community policing mechanism, as having inappropriate content; if enough people report the video as being unacceptable, it will ultimately be taken down. That is clearly a start, but it is not good enough. The police should have the power to get access to these videos blocked by the courts and internet service providers. I am not so naive as to think that would be a panacea, but it strikes me that when the police know that this kind of material is freely available to anyone with access to the web, they should be empowered to take action against it.

We should not have to rely on voluntary community censorship in relation to this important issue, not least because the majority of people viewing the material are probably those least likely to want to report it for fear of reprisal. I recognise that policing of the internet will always be incredibly difficult, but unless we start to grapple with the online manifestation of gangs, I question our ability to tackle the problem. We can talk about gang injunctions all we like, and there might be a need for them, but should we not also recognise that the same individuals might cause an equal amount of fear by their actions when sat at a computer at home?

In the time that remains, I shall turn my attention to the existing legislation. Although the Communications Act 2003 does not provide a solution to the problem, the provisions in the Digital Economy Act 2010 might be a useful template for what I propose. Section 127 of the Communications Act, entitled, “Improper use of public electronic communications network” makes it a criminal offence to send

“a message or other matter that is grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character”.

It might be possible to use that measure to deal with the perpetrator of the gang video—the camera man—but it does not provide a means of requiring that the violent material be removed from public view on the internet. Clearly, we need to go after the gang members themselves, but we also need to be able to remove what is effectively their advertising material. The Communications Act does not seem to be of any use in that regard, whereas the Digital Economy Act contains a potentially useful template in respect of the power it grants to courts to order internet service providers to remove web content that infringes copyright. I put it to the House that the removal of material inciting gang violence could and should be dealt with in a similar way.

I understand that in the new year, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport is going to publish a Green Paper on a new communications Bill. In the hope of joined-up government, I urge the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport, the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey), who is present, to ensure that DCMS and the Home Office work together and look carefully at the options for addressing this important issue. If the Government are serious about addressing the problems of gangs and youth violence, they need to wake up to the role of the internet and the way in which young people become involved in gangs and knife crime.

As things stand, I fear there is a real danger that the Government are leaving the need for an internet strategy to tackle gang crime, and indeed other forms of crime, in the “too difficult to tackle” box. That simply is not good enough. Gangs may not be a new phenomenon but the casualisation of violence associated with them is. The speed and reach of the internet in propagating and glorifying that violence is also something new and we must not ignore it. We must find a way to address it.

Question put and agreed to.


That Heidi Alexander, Mr David Lammy, Ms Karen Buck, Joan Ruddock, Bob Blackman, Siobhain McDonagh, Meg Hillier, Bill Esterson, Teresa Pearce and Mr Lee Scott present the Bill.

Heidi Alexander accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 16 March, and to be printed (Bill 246).