Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mel Stride.)
I wish to raise the matter of cyber-bullying and the abuse of online anonymity. I know that there are hon. Members for whom this is of deep concern, so I am happy to take interventions, and, if there is time, for colleagues to make short speeches, if that would be in order, Madam Deputy Speaker.
Hate-tweeting trolls make people’s lives hell. They have got out of hand on social media, and we need to tackle them, but to paraphrase Tony Blair, we cannot just be tough on hate tweeting; we must be tough on the causes of hate tweeting. I suggest that we consider targeting the anonymity that hate tweeters use to harass people online. It is all too easy to set up a bogus account online and viciously stab at people from behind the curtain; ensuring that people could not set up anonymous accounts at will would force hate tweeters to be responsible for the hate they spew. They would be identifiable.
There is a deeper point. We need to promote kindness, courtesy and being yourself. When we bump into somebody on the street, we exchange pleasantries; when we engage in banter down the local pub, we have a fun time, generally; what we do not do is pretend to be someone else or hurl abuse and make threats without consequence. Why, then, does anyone think that that is okay on the internet?
I am particularly concerned for our young people, for whom cyber-bullying is a rising issue. According to ChildLine, 4,500 young people talked to the charity about online bullying last year, representing an 87% rise on the year before. The anti-bullying charity Ditch the Label surveyed more than 10,000 young people aged 13 to 22 as part of its annual cyber-bullying report in 2013 and found that 69% had experienced cyber-bullying at some point and that 37% had experienced it frequently. Most dishearteningly, 20% had experienced extreme cyber-bullying on a daily basis. Young people are twice as likely to be cyber-bullied on Facebook as on any other social network, with 54% of young people using Facebook reporting that they had experienced cyber-bullying. Facebook, Twitter and Ask.fm are the most likely places for cyber-bullying.
It is not just about the high-profile cases involving celebrities, people who have suffered great tragedy, such as the McCanns, or Members of Parliament who have been attacked. Well-known people are more likely to be reported on, but the problem is much more widespread than just a few famous people, and sometimes it ends in tragedy. In some cases, people have been so harassed online that they have been driven to take their own lives: Callum Moody-Chapman, in Cumbria; “Nadia”—the name given by the Italian media—in Italy; Erin Gallagher, in the Republic of Ireland; and Ciara Pugsley, also in the Republic of Ireland. It is important to make it clear that suicide often has many complicating factors, but we ignore these trends at our peril.
I have referred to well-known cases in the media of adults being cyber-bullied. There was the case of J. K. Rowling during the Scottish referendum; Emma Watson just for making a speech to the UN on feminism; and of course Judy Finnigan and Chloe Madeley. It is simply unacceptable. There are three pieces of relevant legislation: the Malicious Communications Act 1988, the Communications Act 2003 and the Protection from Harassment Act 1997. The legislation focuses on dealing with trolls when they have done damage, but we need to prevent that damage in the first place. Another problem is that the international reach of the internet makes it hard to tackle criminal acts in our justice system. The police need to be more proactive and effective in tackling the problem in a more organised fashion.
Is it not true, however, that even when the police are proactive and organised they are often met with the obstacle of large corporations, frequently based in the States, reluctant to hand over the information that would enable the police to identify and prosecute these trolls?
I completely agree with my hon. Friend. That is one barrier; the other one, of course, is that people can just set up new accounts at will. They can do that through the dark net, and they can hide their IP addresses to make it harder to locate who they are. That is why I am coming to the point of saying that perhaps we should think about making people identify themselves if they want to set up an account, just as we have to do in so many other walks of life.
I recognise that the international nature of the internet makes it hard to tackle the criminality in this country, but I suggest that the police should make much more use of the Harassment Act 1997 rather than view this as a separate online problem. The behaviour is what they should go after. If behaviour is criminal, we cannot allow more latitude for it on the internet. There is not. Such behaviour should be subject to the same tests as if someone is confronted on the street with nasty face-to-face remarks.
I welcome the fact that the Justice Secretary has set out plans for serious cases of cyber-bullying to go to the Crown court and be subject to a sentence of up to two years. That is a welcome and encouraging start—a step in the right direction, saying that cyber-bullying is unacceptable. Nevertheless, let me set out three areas where we could go further.
First and most fundamentally, people need to take responsibility for their actions and not have the option of anonymity. We have cracked down on poison pen letters. Some of us may remember the problem of deep breathers—those who would pick up the phone and start calling random numbers and deep breathing at people to terrorise them down the line. Call logging put a stop to all that stuff, but now we need to deal with trouble caused when characters use anonymity to spout vitriol online. Anonymity, then, is the first issue.
Evidence suggests that people’s behaviour becomes worse when they are given anonymity, which is why it needs to end. Social media providers should ensure that they know people’s identity to discourage hate-filled attacks. If it is known who they are, people will not go around doing this sort of thing and neither will they be able to create multiple social media accounts to further their hate campaigns.
Some say, “We cannot do this; it undermines the principle of free speech. I should be able to say what I like.” I believe they are wrong to say that because the principle of free speech was dearly bought. People can state their own views in their own name. Mrs Mopp of Acacia avenue can say, “The Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition are completely hopeless and not up to their job”, but the secret police will not come for them in the middle of the night. That is what free speech is about. It is not a right to go around anonymously terrorising and harassing people. That is an abuse of free speech. It is not free speech; it is pure cowardice, and it should not be tolerated. Neither should we confuse the issue of privacy to surf the internet, which we all believe in, with the idea of privacy in aid of anonymity as a means of launching attacks on people. There should be no hiding place for trolls.
Secondly, there is the issue of educating children on digital responsibilities. We cannot protect children simply by blocking access to the internet and social media. That will not work. Young people are at the forefront of technological change, so we need to educate them to understand that their online behaviour will be judged just as much as their behaviour in real life. Just as we teach citizenship and British values in our schools, so we should educate our young people about their online responsibilities and the importance of respect there, as well.
Thirdly, international action is important. The internet is international: it knows no borders and it is changing all the time. Social media has existed for barely a decade, and the law needs to keep up with this rapid change. That is why we need international co-ordinated action. An organisation such as the OECD could play a serious role in co-ordinating what we all do collectively in the global village in which we live. Rogue nations that harbour trolls and online criminals can be tackled more effectively with international co-ordination.
To conclude, it is becoming increasingly clear that it is time to strip people of their anonymity on social media.
Before my hon. Friend concludes, I want to say that I think he will have an uphill struggle in managing to persuade people on an international basis that identity should be disclosed when people abuse the internet. He might find it rather easier, however, if firms were required at least to take down and block persistent abusers; and he might find it easier to get search engines to block firms that fail to do that. Perhaps he should include some of these more modest aims in his programme.
I agree that enforcement is a massive problem because of the international nature of the internet. The starting place should be to raise the issue and say that anonymity is the problem. It is the nature of the curtain that one could be stabbed from behind that we must look at and, having done so, we must ask how we pull back that curtain. First, we must get big social media organisations such as Facebook and Twitter voluntarily to make sure that they identify their users and take the actions suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis). Secondly, we must have international action to make sure that international laws and regulations are co-ordinated so that we can work in lockstep. I realise that this is a new area that will develop over the next five years. I suspect that the issue will increase in importance rather than decline.
I want to put ideas out there for us to consider. We need to look at anonymity. We need to educate our children about digital responsibility and hammer home the message that hate tweeting is wrong and that if anyone abuses others anonymously from their keyboard, they will be found out. That would stop in their tracks the people who con, who threaten and who terrorise. We must take back the internet from the weirdos, from the trolls and from the cowardly.
It is an honour and a privilege to respond on behalf of the Government this evening to this very important Adjournment debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke) not only on securing the debate but on getting colleagues to come in on a Thursday evening and support him.
I apologise because I am probably not the lead Minister who would normally deal with this debate, but it is important that my Department—I sit in two Departments—which has responsibility for part of the work that needs to be done to address this important issue is represented at the Dispatch Box. The cross-governmental responsibilities here include the Department for Education, the Ministry of Justice, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the Home Office and the Cabinet Office to name a few. There are probably other Departments that feel they have responsibilities, not least given the Prime Minister’s interest in recent years.
An Adjournment debate this evening will not allow the issue to have the time it deserves. Far be it from me to suggest what the Backbench Business Committee should and should not do, but this is a very important debate that needs more air time than an Adjournment debate in the House can give.
It is also my belief, and that of the Government, that there is no difference in law between what one does online and what one does in public: what one does face to face is identical within law to what is done online. My hon. Friend quoted at least three Acts. My officials think that five Acts may be in place to help with the issue: the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, the Malicious Communications Act 1998, the Communications Act 2003 and the Defamation Act 2013. They all apply to online trolls.
Perhaps I can address early on some of the specific points that my hon. Friend raised, particularly education. Education is very important. Since September 2014, not so long ago, e-safety has to be taught at all four key stages within the curriculum at our schools. It is massively important that young people have the education and knowledge that they need reinforced at every key stage going forward so that while they use the wonderful new media as much as possible, they understand the problems and dangers of internet bullying.
As my hon. Friend suggested, there are no boundaries or borders in this type of abhorrent behaviour. The internet is a wonderful thing, but I know as Minister responsible for child protection how dangerous the internet is in particular to young, vulnerable people.
I was in Washington at the beginning of the week before last, where I attended the global alliance conference on child online protection, and it was very obvious where the problems occur. It is an international problem; that is the case not only with trolling, but also with some of the other abhorrent things we see on the internet these days. People are earning huge amounts of money out of other people’s grief and poverty, and just getting a kick, frankly, out of abusing people online.
May I therefore reiterate again that in law there is no difference between standing in front of someone and abusing them and doing it online? That is very important, and we have seen some significant cases coming before the courts recently to make sure everybody understands that.
Let me touch briefly on three points, and in particular the anonymous nature of trolls. It is an obvious thing to say that someone should have their anonymity removed—or should they not have it in the first place? In the international spectrum, however, I do not want people living in Syria to have their anonymity taken away. I want people around the world who are living under repression to have the ability to tell the rest of the world what is going on in their countries—what is happening to them, to their families, to their political parties—without fear that their identity will be known.
In saying that, the police do have a way of finding out very quickly where such a communication came from. I know that myself as, sadly, my bank account was hacked fairly recently, but the IP addresses were made available enormously quickly by my internet bank to the police and subsequently arrests have been made. They cannot hide, therefore: “If you abuse someone using the internet, no matter what technology you use, invariably you will be discovered, and if you break the law, you will be prosecuted.” What we must do, however, is ensure people have the confidence to come forward, not necessarily directly to the police every time because it can be very difficult for young people to do that, but to someone they trust within their school or family or community, to tell them what is going on so we can prosecute.
Is not the problem that this would be regarded by the police as a pretty low priority unless it had reached a level of great seriousness, and therefore is not the solution, as I suggested before, that the main companies must have easy ways of reporting abuse before it gets to that level and that they should be likely to block it irrespective of whether or not the person’s identity is known?
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention, and he has touched on a point I was coming to in the next few minutes. On his first point, this sort of offence can now be heard in the High Court and it does carry a penalty of up to two years. That is relatively new, but that actually happens. Standing here not as a Justice Minister but as the police Minister from the Home Office, I can say that the police should, and will, deal with this in the same way as they would deal with an offence offline. That is vitally important, and perhaps a message from the Dispatch Box from the police Minister to the police on that point this evening will not go amiss.
This country leads the way in working with these big companies. While I was in Washington the American Administration said to me that we have a rapport and a relationship and get things done with the big companies in a way that they do not. We need to use that relationship, and of course in early December there will be a global conference here in London, headed by the Prime Minister, on online protection of children and these sorts of issues will be discussed.
Trolls need to know that they will be prosecuted and that the action that will be taken is international. I can assure my hon. Friend that I will have international meetings in this difficult area. I will also let the Ministers in all the different Government Departments know what I have said at the Dispatch Box today, and tell them that we are coming together as a Government to ensure that we do this in a departmental way and that the lead Department leads the process. I can assure my hon. Friend that we are doing something about this.
I should like to thank the police in Merseyside for taking an online hate crime against me very seriously. This resulted in a conviction last week. What more can the Minister do, along with colleagues in other Departments, to encourage as many people as possible across the country to report any hate crime that they might experience, confident in the knowledge that the authorities will do something about it?
I reiterate that that is exactly what we want people to do. We want them to have the confidence to come forward. In a perfect world, everyone—particularly young people—would have the confidence to go directly to the police. However, some people might not have the confidence to do that, and they might instead share the problem with their teacher, their tutor or their parents.
We have not touched on the responsibilities of parents. I speak as the father of two young ladies who would probably tell me that they are now much too independent to be given advice by their father. That does not mean that they are teenagers; they are slightly older than that. It is important that everyone takes responsibility for knowing what is going on. Earlier today, a victim was talking to me about this issue. The only reason that the problem had come to light was that her mother had noticed a sudden change in her behaviour. She had become quiet and secretive, and she was not as extrovert as she used to be. Her mother then found a diary that revealed what was going on.
I am conscious that many Departments need to pull together on this issue. We also need to pull together internationally. This is an enormously difficult subject for many people, whether they are famous and in the public arena or not. This also affects the forgotten ones, the youngsters and the little ones at school who are being abused by cyber-bullies. It is not acceptable and we will do everything in our power internationally and at home to ensure that cyber-bullies are removed from the internet.
Question put and agreed to.