Skip to main content

Internet Abuse of Members of Parliament

Volume 587: debated on Tuesday 4 November 2014

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mark Lancaster.)

I wish to raise the problems that Members of the House and many more people in our communities face from the abuse of social media. For me, and probably for all hon. Members, social media has huge benefits. It is a great liberator and gives many new opportunities to people throughout the world to communicate in different ways. However, it has a small but vicious and nasty downside. Indeed, having called the debated, I noted a story in the newspapers. Mr Yaya Touré, a footballer, went back on to Twitter after five months and was immediately viciously abused by racists. Mr Robert Hannigan, the head of GCHQ, said this morning that internet companies are in denial over the use of the internet by terrorists and criminals.

We have seen the most grotesque misuse of the right of freedom of expression by individuals using the internet in a series of cases affecting Members. My hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy), who successfully prosecuted, said that

“the authorities didn’t even know how to begin investigating whether one person was sending these messages”—

the abusive, hateful and violent messages she was receiving—

“or many individuals”.

The grotesque racist abuse from a whole range of people in the past few weeks aimed at my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger) has been a factor in my request to Mr Speaker to grant this debate. On Saturday, 10 people were arrested as a direct consequence of issues raised on the internet. When I had the temerity to raise the issue on a point of order in the House, I received the most extraordinary fake messages, allegedly in my name, which were deliberately meant to upset, alienate and aggrieve individuals in the community: incendiary words that were fiction and mere lies—nothing I would ever contemplate saying—but put up by one of these individuals in my name and then spread by others across the internet. There has been an arrest in the past few days.

The Inter-parliamentary Coalition for Combating Antisemitism, which I chair, and the Anti-Defamation League in the US, have spent the past four years agreeing best practice for responding to cyber-hate. A whole range internet providers—Google, Twitter, YouTube, PayPal, Facebook—have agreed five procedures for internet providers:

“Providers should take reports about cyberhate seriously, mindful of the fundamental principles of free expression, human dignity, personal safety and respect for the rule of law.”

The last three are being violated repeatedly, both in relation to Members and to people—far more people—outside this House. What the internet companies and law enforcement companies are doing in this country is insufficient.

The second guideline states:

“Providers that feature user-generated content should offer users a clear explanation of their approach to evaluating and resolving reports of hateful content, highlighting their relevant terms of service.”

Having had this happen against me and seeing it against others, I have no idea what those terms are. They are not upfront. They are not available for people to see. No one has a clue what the internet companies claim to be doing about it.

The third guideline states:

“Providers should offer user-friendly mechanisms and procedures for reporting hateful content.”

I would advise anyone to take as an example Twitter. To know how to use Twitter’s response one has to be something of a computer expert. It is not user-friendly and it is not immediately available for those being harassed on the internet by others, sometimes in a criminal way.

The fourth guideline states:

“Providers should respond to user reports in a timely manner.”

Even when the police use requests under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 Twitter, Facebook and others, they go to the United States, or even Europe where the companies have their headquarters, rather than have them agreed in this country, This delays hugely the ability of the police to gain the information even to contemplate prosecuting.

Fifthly:

“Providers should enforce whatever sanctions their terms of service contemplate in a consistent and fair manner”.

I am not suggesting, and nobody else is, a hierarchy of victims or any special privileged treatment for MPs, but the fact is that Members of Parliament are receiving the most grotesque and criminal hate abuse on the internet. If that can be done to Members of Parliament, can we imagine what is being done to people out in the community? I am now hearing countless examples of the most extraordinary abuse even of tiny children and of victims being abused when the victim complains. Businesses are another example, with people’s businesses torn apart by abuse on the internet.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his tireless work in this area. Does he agree with me that we must have in mind those people to whom he alludes and who are not in this House and have to suffer in silence and in isolation? They often have no support, and these people should be at the forefront of our minds. We need to do everything we possibly can to tackle this issue for them.

A system that would work for a Member of Parliament at the top of society—as, in reality, we are—should and must also work for anybody in society. We have the ability to fight back against this abuse. We have the ability to contact the police at a senior level and immediately. I shall come on to what can and should be done even for Members of Parliament, but for people being bullied, intimidated and criminally harassed by people on the internet, there is very little ability and very little knowledge to respond, largely because the internet companies do not take their responsibilities seriously. The police and the Crown Prosecution Service are behind the times when it comes to dealing with this problem.

Social media is regarded as a communication tool, but it is also a search engine. Others are going in and seeing what is there. It is used to incite, as happened in the case with me, or to organise, in the case of others, and often goes far beyond the initial expression to cause further damage at the aimed-for victim. There are real-life consequences—huge, real-life consequences—and lack of resource is not a defence that these social media companies can use.

We have seen racist and anti-Semitic abuse with people weighing in across the world, with the most extraordinary stuff being put up in their own domains in their own countries, but linking together because they have been brought together using social media. Then the opportunity is taken to target individuals and to repeat target them, with groups of people joining in the cyber-bullying and harassment, including criminal harassment. Some examples are potentially within the reach of our law enforcement, but others are well beyond it.

Even when there have been convictions—actual convictions for doing this in the most extraordinary and horrific ways to members of the public—Twitter and Facebook, to name but two, have not taken down the associated Twitter and Facebook accounts when people were convicted of abuse on the basis of evidence that those two companies helped to provide. So the culprits continue to glory in that abuse and repeat it against other victims. Something is seriously and significantly wrong with how these internet companies are dealing with the problem, but it can be seen, too, in the sanctions used by the courts and requested by the police in this country.

We need simple systems to report abuse. They should be simple to the police and authorities in this country and simple to the internet companies. We need internet companies that can be contacted directly and that do not hide away so that no one knows who runs them. I am told by these companies that it is very easy to write simple algorithms that can deal with such problems. Why, then, are these algorithms not being used, particularly where abuse has been reported and a conviction has been made?

My hon. Friend is making a point about simplicity. That is vital, as it will help all of us who want to stand with the victims of abuse to report it quickly, easily and simply to keep others safe.

Where individuals set up multiple accounts, Twitter finds it impossible to deal with that. That shows a lack of will. In law, there is an ability to ban or block individuals on social media in relation to sexual offences. This needs to be widened to all bullying and harassment on the internet where it can be shown in a detailed way that individuals have taken a considered and determined view in advance to exploit the networks to harm others. These rules should apply in all forms of harassment and abuse.

Why are we not using internet banning orders, ASBO equivalents for social media? If we can ban people from going to a certain pub or a certain football match, or any football match, or into this town or that locality, the same should be done to specific parts of social media or, if necessary, the internet as a whole. The powers exist in law but if the police were to ask for such powers and if those powers were to be implemented by the courts as part of prosecutions, there would be more ability to close down those who refuse to be tolerant and decent and who are criminal abusers of the existing law. We do not need new law. We need the current law to be used imaginatively to remove profiles from the internet, to delete accounts and to stop people continuing their abuse in exactly the same way as the police can confiscate hardware and so on. But we know how easy it is for people to switch to other mobiles or to internet cafes to continue and they are doing that.

This is not simply about using the Malicious Communications Act 1988 or the Communications Act 2003. It is about public order and harassment and those laws and those powers should be available. We need to see this as serious and major crime, not as a minor problem. Some of the abuse that we receive may be unpleasant but it does not cross the threshold. We are not talking about idiots giving us general grief on the internet. We are not talking about special privileges for MPs. We are talking about everyone, including MPs; where there is serial harassment and attempts to incite, including potentially to incite violence. We are talking about that being acted upon.

The parliamentary authorities need to get their act together in dealing with this. This is a workplace. If we are abused, insulted or threatened, and our staff and our families receive similar, they need to be doing more. Communities need to be doing more. I am critical of those, in the case of my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree, who said how sorry they were but did not step up to the mark in suggesting solutions and providing solidarity and support, which should be automatic.

Finally, the political parties are not stepping up to the mark when one of their members is being abused in this way. It is being dismissed as par for the course and part of the general thing. We hear that it is not nice or pleasant but is something that is less than other criminal harassment. It is not. It is a fundamental part of criminal harassment. People out there—non-MPs—have had their lives ruined by this. That is why what happens to MPs, as with the rest of the community, needs to be dealt with more effectively in here and in this country.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) on securing the debate. We would all agree that the passion with which he has spoken is abundantly clear and sends out a powerful message on what he passionately believes in, which many of us in the Chamber share. I also pay tribute to the work he has done in this field, which I know he will continue. As he has pointed out, such attacks are particularly abhorrent, and can cause serious distress to the victims, whoever they may be—Members of Parliament or members of the public. I share his concern about the distress and fear that such actions can inflict. No one should have to deal with such abuse.

Let me first make it absolutely clear that anyone who has been a victim of internet abuse should not hesitate to contact the police. The recent convictions of a man for sending an anti-Semitic message directed at the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger), and of another who had been found guilty of sending abusive messages to the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) after she had supported a feminist campaign, demonstrate the seriousness with which the police and prosecutors take such crimes, and their willingness to take appropriate action.

In June last year, following consultation, the Director of Public Prosecutions published guidelines for prosecutors considering cases that involve communications sent via social media. As with all cases, prosecutions are subject to the two-stage test of whether there is sufficient evidence and whether a prosecution is in the public interest. The guidelines specify that, when considering whether communications sent via social media are capable of amounting to criminal offences, prosecutors should make an initial assessment of the content of the communications and the conduct. Prosecutions may be brought in relation to material when there is a credible threat of violence, when communications specifically target an individual or individuals and may constitute harassment or stalking within the meaning of the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, when communications breach a court order, or when communications may be considered so grossly offensive, indecent, obscene or false as to justify prosecution.

Those guidelines seek to strike the difficult balance between protecting freedom of speech and acting robustly against communications that cross the threshold into illegality. They make clear that, while not every communication that causes offence or is controversial or unpopular would justify criminal proceedings, the criminal law is available to tackle abuse that is targeted or of a seriously offensive nature. I therefore urge anyone who has been a victim of such abuse to come forward, in the knowledge that the authorities understand the gravity of that kind of behaviour.

As Members may know, and as those guidelines from the Crown Prosecution Service make clear, a number of offences may be committed by those who abuse others over the internet, including those who abuse members of Parliament. I fully accept what the hon. Gentleman said about inactivity in some cases, but I assure him that the Government are working and engaging with social media platforms, the police and other stakeholders with a view to trying to improve the position. It is by no means perfect, but we are working hard to try to make it a great deal better than it is at present.

There is, of course, plenty of legislation to deal with issues such as this. Internet communication that is grossly offensive or menacing may constitute the commission of an offence under section 127 of the Communications Act 2003. Section 127(1) makes it an offence to send, or cause to be sent by means of a public electronic communications network, a message or other matter that is grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character. The offence does not require an intention to cause anxiety or distress to be proven, and the message does not have to be sent to a specific person. Section 127(2) contains a separate offence of misusing a public communications network for the purpose of causing annoyance, inconvenience or needless anxiety to another, either by sending or causing to be sent a false message or by persistently making use of the network. The maximum penalty for offences under section 127 is six months’ imprisonment and/or a fine of up to £5,000.

Sending, delivering or transmitting an indecent, grossly offensive, threatening or false message, or something that is of an indecent or grossly offensive nature, to another, including by means of the internet, is an offence under the Malicious Communications Act 1988, provided that the material is sent with the purpose of causing distress or anxiety to a person to whom it is communicated, or to any other person to whom the sender intends it or its contents or nature to be communicated. Even if the content does not meet the threshold required by those offences, internet abuse could still amount to an offence under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 if carried out on more than one occasion. Section 2 of that Act makes it an offence for someone to pursue a course of conduct which amounts to harassment. Section 4 makes it an offence if the defendant’s course of conduct causes someone to fear that violence will be used against them and he or she knows or ought to know that the course of conduct will cause that fear. The maximum penalty for a harassment offence under section 2 is six months’ imprisonment or a level 5 fine, which is up to £5,000, or both. The offence under section 4 carries a maximum penalty of five years’ imprisonment or a fine, or both. A court sentencing for an offence may also make a restraining order, the breach of which is an offence with a maximum sentence of five years’ imprisonment. Where the offence is motivated by the victim’s race or religion, the court can take this into account as an aggravating factor and reflect this in the sentence, something we saw recently in the case concerning the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree.

Let me be clear: the Government are not complacent. Changes to the law contained in the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill, currently being considered in the House of Lords, will increase the maximum penalty for offences under the Malicious Communications Act 1988 from six months to two years’ imprisonment or an unlimited fine, or both. The offence in section 1 of the 1988 Act is currently a summary-only offence, which means that it can be dealt with only in the magistrates court. As a summary-only offence, prosecutions must be brought within six months. The changes being taken forward in the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill also mean more serious offences can be dealt with in the Crown court and that there will not be a time limit for bringing prosecutions, allowing more time for offences to be investigated.

Alongside this, the Government are extending the time within which prosecutions under the Communications Act 2003 may be brought, to allow up to three years, as opposed to the previous six-month limit, to bring prosecutions against people for using the internet, social media or mobile phones to send menacing messages, so long as prosecutions are brought within six months of the prosecutor having sufficient knowledge to justify proceedings. These changes come on top of a raft of Government measures to support victims. Next year, victims’ rights to tell the court how their crime has affected them will be set out in statute, a new nationwide victims information service will be set up to ensure better information and support, and millions of pounds will be invested in improving the court experience.

Where abusive behaviour has occurred on social networking sites, the Government expect social media companies to have robust processes in place to respond promptly when abuse is reported. This includes acting quickly to assess the report, removing content which does not comply with the acceptable use policies or terms and conditions in place and, where appropriate, suspending or terminating the accounts of those breaching the rules in place. The Government have worked with social media to ensure that their practices are sufficiently robust to address online abuse quickly and effectively, and we will continue to do that work. Let me also be clear that online abuse is just as illegal as communications that are offline. The measures also include working with the main companies to simplify and highlight their reporting processes so that users can make reports easily, as well as ensuring that their own guidelines are readily accessible and publicised widely, so that users are aware of the service they can expect.

I hope that I have been able to assure the House that the Government take the concerns expressed today very seriously, and that we already have a strong framework of offences, which we are seeking to strengthen by further legislative changes. The Government will continue to work with social media and the internet industries in the interests of the public, as this is an important and developing area of policy. Hon. Members should be in no doubt that the Government are committed to addressing online abuse in all its forms.

The hon. Gentleman referred specifically to the abuse that Members of Parliament receive, and his points have certainly been taken on board. The law applies as much to us as it does to members of the public. Indeed, we have seen recent examples of the law being used to secure the convictions of members of the public who were seeking to abuse Members of Parliament. I thank him again for raising this important subject on the Floor of the House tonight. I know that it will continue to merit attention from colleagues on both sides of the House, because it is an immensely important subject that continues to change in the fast-moving internet arena. For our part, the Government will continue to monitor the situation and to do whatever we can to ensure that Members of Parliament and members of the public are kept as safe as possible from the abuse that is currently out there.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.