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Criminal Offences (Misuse of Digital Technologies and Services) (Consolidation) Bill

Volume 607: debated on Wednesday 9 March 2016

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 consolidate offences relating to the misuse of digital devices, technologies, systems and services for the purposes of committing or preparing to commit or aiding, abetting, facilitating or concealing the commission of a crime or disposal of the proceeds of a crime; to make provision reflecting technological advancements, including the training of criminal justice personnel; to establish a duty for the Secretary of State to provide advice and guidance to the digital and telecommunications services industry aimed at reducing the misuse of digital technologies for criminal purposes; and for connected purposes.

There has been an unprecedented rise in crime assisted by digital technology over the past decade. Just as so many of us now spend so many of our waking hours in cyberspace, so too has organised crime found new territory in which to operate. Abusers have found new means to torment their victims, often under the veil of anonymity. Charities, agencies and police involved in tackling stalking and harassment, hate crimes and abuse are only too aware that criminals and abusers are using technology to target victims. The challenge here is to identify what is criminal behaviour and to respond appropriately.

Victims of cyber-abuse often do not turn to the police, either because they are unaware that an offence has been committed or because they do not believe that the police will react. The College of Policing estimates that half of all crimes reported to front-line officers has a cyber element. Police experts state that there are as many as 7 million online frauds a year and 3 million other online crimes. Very many of these go unreported.

The police lead on the fight against digital crime. The chief constable of Essex, Stephen Kavanagh, warns that the levels of abuse on the internet are now at unexpected levels, and that the police are at risk of being “swamped”. Sometimes police response to victims’ complaints is ambiguous, yet if these are crimes—and they are—an ambiguous response to them is not a satisfactory solution. Where are the dividing lines between hissy teenagers letting off steam and abusive hate mail? What are the indicators that flag up the likelihood of aggressive words in digital format leading to violent action in the physical world? What as a society do we believe should be treated as criminal behaviour, and what is merely the unfortunate reflection of individuals’ private thoughts laid out for the world to retweet at leisure? And how on earth do the police deal with all that?

The police, many of whom, particularly senior officers, were trained to deal with 20th-century crimes, now find themselves in the 21st century amid a maelstrom of mass information and breakneck technological change—the bobby on his bicycle, out on the internet highway, policing the dark web with a flashlight and an Alsatian.

The purpose of this Bill is to call on the Attorney General and the Solicitor General to undertake a review of all relevant legislation and to consolidate powers contained in a list of statutes into a single Bill. At present, prosecution can be initiated by using a confusing array of criminal legislation. I thank Harry Fletcher of Digital-Trust for his considerable and thorough work on this Bill, which involved seeking out the relevant sections of more than 30 Acts, including one dating from the 19th century. It is evident that the existing provision is fragmentary and inadequate, and that that in itself acts as a hindrance, allowing abuse to continue unchecked.

It is important to understand that the threshold set for the prosecution of hate crimes over the internet is extremely high. That is understandable, yet the way in which that threshold is interpreted varies from police force to police force across the country, and many incidents are not prosecuted. Consolidating that and other statutes will bring much-needed clarity.

The requirement for additional police training will address the situation where only 7,500 police officers out of a total of 100,000 in England and Wales are trained to investigate digital crime. The Bill also updates laws on surveillance, monitoring and abusive content. It becomes a clear offence repeatedly to locate, listen to or watch an individual by means of digital technology without legitimate reason. It will be illegal to install spyware or webcams without good reason. It becomes an offence to make multiple images of a person unless it is in the public interest so to do. It becomes an offence repeatedly to order goods or services for a person if it causes distress or anxiety. Posting images without the subject’s permission and the posting of messages that are discriminatory or threatening, or that cause distress or anxiety, would become offences.

The Bill also places additional responsibilities on social media platform providers and the industry as a whole to respect and abide by a code of professional standards; to conduct impact assessments in respect of customers; to block offensive social media postings and postings inciting violence; and to co-operate with and inform the police in the event of wrongdoing.

I am aware that this is something of a cliché, but it is difficult to avoid stating the obvious fact that this is a Bill whose time has come. It is evident from the Bill’s cross-party support, for which I am very grateful, that parliamentarians from across the House feel that legislation in relation to cybercrime and cyber-abuse must be fit for purpose, and that the recourse available at present to police and prosecutors does not facilitate their work.

That ready response springs from our common experiences. MPs have been the subject of violent online threats. People come to our surgeries reporting abuse and bullying. We read about people in the public eye, including footballers and celebrities, and the unacceptable abuse some of them receive on Twitter and Facebook. Teaching unions, too, are concerned at the abuse their members face.

The campaigning organisation Kick It Out works with football clubs and fans to tackle all forms of discrimination. It deals with abuse relating to race, sexual orientation, gender, faith and disability, and 42% of incidents reported to Kick It Out occurred on social media.

I have had a mother at a constituency surgery describing one of her children being targeted by means of a gaming console online chatroom. She was aware that that was possible over the internet, but assumed that, in gaming, her daughter would be talking to other children and that gaming chatrooms were safe spaces. It was her son who realised that whoever was talking to his sister was not genuine.

We should not underestimate the scale of the issues at stake: digital crime can ruin lives. On 26 February, Women’s Aid hosted a conference entitled, “He’s watching you”, which focused on revenge pornography, as well as the many ways in which perpetrators of domestic violence can further their abuse by tormenting their victims over the internet. As Polly Neate, chief executive officer of Women’s Aid, said in that conference:

“There’s not a real world and a digital world. We exist online in a real way”.

It is often said that social media makes the world seem smaller. For victims of online abuse and harassment, it can make it feel like that world is closing in on them, like there is no escape. For victims of domestic violence, too, online abuse can be overwhelming. A Women’s Aid survey of more than 700 survivors of online abuse found that in 85% of cases the online abuse was part of a wider pattern of abuse that occurred on the internet and in real life. Perpetrators will use any means necessary to control and intimidate their victims.

And the danger is very real. A third of online threats of violence are then carried out. Abuse tends to escalate after a relationship ends, which means that victims are in even greater danger once their perpetrators embark on online abuse. Criminal justice professionals, and society more generally, have to take those threats seriously. If we do not, more people will have their lives destroyed.

I am glad to say that some change is already afoot. Indeed, it was welcome that last week the Crown Prosecution Service announced new guidelines for prosecutors of certain elements of social media abuse. A consultation has been launched about the guidelines, which advise lawyers to prosecute criminals who use fake online aliases to harass victims. The guidelines acknowledge that such abusers can pose as their victims online in order to damage reputations. They offer guidance on how to interpret existing laws, particularly in the light of newer offences such as coercive control and revenge pornography.

It is, of course, welcome to see change starting to take root, but those guidelines are not a panacea. Indeed, they underline the need for consolidating the sheer number of statutes that can be used by prosecutors. I believe that my Bill would go a long way towards tackling this problem, and that it will send a clear signal—to perpetrators and victims alike—that as a society we take these crimes seriously.

I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.


That Liz Saville Roberts, Mr Graham Allen, Sir David Amess, Sir Edward Garnier, Mrs Cheryl Gillan, Mr David Lammy, Tim Loughton, Ms Margaret Ritchie, Mr Barry Sheerman, Hywel Williams, Corri Wilson and Dr Sarah Wollaston present the Bill.

Liz Saville Roberts accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on 11 March, and to be printed (Bill 151).

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. It is obvious that the next item of business is going to be enormously popular. Many Members will try to speak and, indeed, there is great public interest in it. I thought you would be interested to know that the Procedure Committee is conducting an inquiry into whether to give you more power to extend debates. It seems ridiculous that that is entirely in the control of the Government. For instance, on Monday we left early after a Second Reading debate, while today many hon. Members will either not be able to speak or have to give very short speeches. I thought you would like to know that, Mr Speaker.

Well, it is always useful to have a bit of information. I greatly look forward to the result of the deliberations of the Procedure Committee, of which I think the hon. Gentleman is himself a distinguished ornament. If there are no further points of order, we shall now proceed.