I beg to move,
That this House notes the increasing number of cases where the internet, social media and mobile phone technology are used to bully, harass, intimidate and humiliate individuals including children and vulnerable adults; calls on the Government to ensure that clear legislation is in place that recognises the true impact and nature of online abuse, as distinct to offline abuse; and further calls on the Government to put in place appropriate legal and criminal sanctions, police training, guidance to the CPS and education for young people relating to such abuse.
Without digital connectivity and an online world, our lives would be poorer. The reason for this debate today is that our responsibility as elected representatives is clear: the internet needs to be a force for good, not for ill. I believe we all have a clear duty to come together and demand of the Government that they do more to address the problems of online abuse in all its forms. More than three quarters of our constituents use the internet almost every day, and more than half use their mobile phones to access it. Half of all crimes committed in this country have a digital component, and the police are overwhelmed by its scale and diversity, particularly the nature and impact of online abuse.
Rightly, the focus of the Government in the past has primarily been on online abuse that involves child abuse images, and I applaud the Prime Minister for his clear and personal resolve to outlaw that abhorrent crime. However, online abuse is much more than that, for both children and adults, and includes homophobic, transphobic, anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic hate crime, and image-based sexual abuse, to name but a few. Too often, those forms of online abuse and others continue to go unchallenged, because reporting mechanisms are unreliable or obscure, because the law was designed for an analogue age, and because the police are not properly trained to identify online abuse and then collect the evidence to make a case stick. We have to reject all forms of online abuse and show zero-tolerance through our legal systems, our police force and the things that we teach our children in schools.
It is for us to determine what sort of society we live in, not faceless corporate organisations, often many thousands of miles away. We cannot sit by and simply allow online abuse, in all its forms, to become an accepted norm in our society. With the blurring of the online and offline worlds, it is very easy to see how that might end. What is allowed to become an accepted form of online abuse could simply spill over into face-to-face life.
Like every other Member of this House, I believe in freedom of speech, but that freedom of speech has never been an unqualified right. Freedom of speech comes with responsibilities. At present, we are not ensuring that people who are expressing themselves online understand that fact.
The facts show the direction of travel. Today, one in four young people say they have been targeted with online hate because of their gender, sexual orientation, race, religion, disability or transgender identity. Three quarters say that that has had a chilling effect on how they then used the internet in the future for their free exchange of ideas. Teachers have reported a 40% increase in cybercrime in the past five years, with the perpetrators openly finding new ways to abuse their victims by skirting around the law. Parents have found it almost impossible to get rid of “baiting out” footage on YouTube, making the lives of many teenagers unbearable.
I thank the right hon. Lady for bringing this vital issue to the House for consideration. There will not be one MP who has not had a constituent—especially young people—approach them about this very issue. I commend the right hon. Lady for making the point about young people being trolled in the digital world. It impacts not just upon that young person’s personality and how they respond, but in some cases in Northern Ireland and across the United Kingdom it has led to suicide. Is it not time for legislation that responds to this, so that we can put those trolls behind bars, where they should be?
I know from our conversations that the hon. Gentleman has a long-standing interest in the matter. He is right to say that the law is not protecting many young people who feel vulnerable, and that has led them, in some tragic cases, to take their own lives. We have to take this issue far more seriously and make sure that our laws are robust.
We have to deal with some very unpleasant truths, particularly the growth of peer-to-peer trading of sexual images. That is going unchecked in many cases, for fear of criminalising teenagers, but we know that about one in 10 of those cases could well involve an adult. That leaves young people at real risk of sexual exploitation, while the police find it difficult to know how to cope.
Does the right hon. Lady agree that one of the greatest concerns is the under-reporting by young people of these issues? Often, we and the police see only the tip of the iceberg. It is important that we look at the cultural issues.
That is a very good point about under-reporting. Even when those crimes are reported, the police might find it almost impossible to know how to tackle them. That might be because the law is inadequate, but it might also be because their training is inadequate.
I was recently given some evidence by “Good Morning Britain” of a freedom of information request that it made, which uncovered the fact that one in six crimes reported under revenge pornography laws involves children under the age of 18. That is not revenge pornography; that is child abuse. It is potentially misattributed in that way by the police. That leads, exactly as the hon. Lady said, to the under-reporting of one of the most appalling crimes in existence.
I welcome the work that the right hon. Lady has done on this subject. She and I are both involved in the Reclaim the Internet campaign to bring together the police, social media and organisations and individuals across the country to tackle online abuse. I agree that there are big questions for the law and for policing, particularly when it comes to protecting young people. Does she agree that much stronger responsibility is needed from everyone, including other organisations, individuals and social media platforms? Does she welcome the work that Stonewall and Facebook have been doing to tackle online bullying, LGBT discrimination and homophobia, and that they are launching a new online guide tomorrow?
I thank the right hon. Lady for highlighting the work that is going on. I pay tribute to Reclaim the Internet, the cross-party campaign that she started to make sure that we can come together and find a solution to one of the biggest that the country faces. Online abuse, as she rightly says, does not simply affect one group of people. It goes across society, and it is wrecking the lives of adults, too. The Government must be applauded for being one of the first in the world to recognise online image-based sexual abuse in their revenge pornography laws. The Leader of the House, when he was Lord Chancellor, was instrumental in putting those laws into place.
That action has been vindicated, because there have been more than 3,000 calls to the revenge pornography helpline since the laws were enacted—laws that I was told were not needed because there was adequate law in place already. There were 1,000 reported incidents in just six months last year. There is much more to do to make the laws effective and to enable the police to prosecute effectively, but I think it shows that the Government are open to persuasion on the matter, and I hope it demonstrates an open-mindedness for the future. Now is the time for a very clear strategy to tackle these problems. Every person in the country, regardless of their age, should have an expectation that that they will be able to use social media platforms and mobile technology without being subject to criminal abuse.
The online world is part of everybody’s lives. The Minister for Culture and the Digital Economy, my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey), who is sitting on the Front Bench, has a deep interest in and knowledge of these issues. I know the personal work that he has done behind the scenes to try to press forward on many of these issues, and he should be commended for that. I know that the proposals in the Digital Economy Bill on stopping under-age access to pornography will have been subject to a great deal of attention from him. Those proposals are very welcome, but reinforce, I feel, the piecemeal approach to the problem. Experts have already made it clear that children will be, frankly, more than well equipped to get around most barriers put up to stop them getting access to pornography.
The approach in the Bill may well help in stopping younger children inadvertently coming across pornography—an issue I know the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children has highlighted in recent research—but if the Government’s policy is to be effective, it must be part of a much broader and clearer strategic plan, including mandatory sex and relationship education in all state-funded schools to give children the opportunity to understand how to make the right choices for them and put any pornography they may see into the proper perspective in their lives.
I join others in commending the right hon. Lady on securing this debate. She mentioned a multifaceted approach. When I hear about cases in my constituency, one issue that concerns me is the irresponsibility—if we can call it that—of some parents, who give media and digital platform devices to their kids at a very young age and then leave them to it. Surely we need to do more to educate parents about their responsibilities and how they can teach their children to manage such devices responsibly.
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. We find it easy to talk about putting responsibilities on schools to teach, but he is right that it starts with all of us as parents. If we give our children these devices—including gaming devices, as there are clear problems there with regard to the grooming of children—we have to take responsibility for ensuring that they are knowledgeable about the risks and can start to make informed choices from what, as he says, can be a very early age. That can be easily reinforced at school. In the past I have been very open about the fact that I felt that sex and relationship education should be determined by schools, but as we move into the online world the very real dangers and problems encountered by children have changed my view on the need to make that education compulsory.
Some of the best and brightest people work on the online world. It is an incredibly creative industry, and the response to the problems of child abuse images shows that, if we are clear about our terms of engagement, when pressure is applied the industry can react quite swiftly. This debate enables Parliament to send a clear message to the industry, social media and the online world that enough is enough; our constituents deserve better and we will fight—as the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) says with her campaign—to reclaim the internet for them.
I would like to take the opportunity to thank the Backbench Business Committee for recognising the importance of this debate and allowing me and my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) to co-sponsor it. I also thank the myriad organisations that have worked with us to prepare for the debate: Durham University, Professor Sonia Livingstone of the London School of Economics, Stonewall, Galop, the NSPCC, Victim Support, the Internet Watch Foundation—the list goes on, because so many organisations have a deep concern about the direction of travel.
Social media platforms and internet providers are facilitators. Like many other organisations in our country, they provide a service, whereby they are able to gather our personal details to sell them for advertising opportunities. It can be quite astonishing to view a pair of shoes on one website and then see them pop up on another website two hours later in an entirely different context. I really take my hat off to the people who are able to do that. It is a sophisticated industry with sensitive and well developed ways of gathering information, selling sales opportunities and so making successful businesses. Today, I call for some of that incredible talent and expertise to be focused on stopping online abuse.
There are four issues that need to be addressed. First, we need to make sure that we have laws that are fit for purpose. I pay tribute to the work done by Durham University, particularly by Professor Clare McGlynn, and Holly Dustin. We need to clarify what constitutes online abuse. We need better and clearer harassment laws that can be effectively applied online. We need an image-based sexual abuse law that clearly makes illegal all forms of image-based sexual abuse shared in a non-consensual manner. We need to end complete anonymity in the UK, and we need to insist that platforms have a legal duty to be able to identify the people who use their products in our country.
Secondly, we need to make it clear to those platforms and providers that they have to abide by a common standard for reporting mechanisms. They should provide accurate and transparent figures on the cases of reported abuse. When they are developing products, that needs to be done in a way that builds out abuse in the future, rather than building it in at the starting point.
Thirdly, we must be clear to online providers in our country that if they fail to take sensible measures to reduce online abuse, we as a Parliament will consider putting in place a levy to cover the costs of policing that are incurred purely as a result of online abuse crimes. That has been done in other areas—for example, the payments that are made by football teams for the policing of football stadiums. This is not a new idea, but it might concentrate minds when it comes to online abuse in the future.
Last but by no means least, we need to see a change in culture. Consent, respect and dignity should be at the heart of compulsorily delivered sex and relationship education in all our schools. Beyond that, campaigns should be run to make sure that people understand their own responsibilities to act sensibly and within the law while using the internet. That will be driven greatly by removing the veil of anonymity which currently cloaks so many inputs into social media.
Where there is a will, there is a way. I know that the Minister will want to show the House today that there is a clear will on the part of Government. More than four years ago the Prime Minister made it clear that there was no tolerance for child abuse online. At that point the industry had said that it could do little about it. Now, there is a clear strategy and clear protocols, and images are removed swiftly. With a worrying increase in online hate crime, perhaps even spilling out into the offline world already, we need to act swiftly. We need to make sure that cyberbullying and the newly formed concept of online baiting are shown short shrift.
Now is the time to act, and I call on the Minister to show us that he has an understanding of the need for a clear strategy to tackle online abuse in its totality. In the Digital Economy Bill which he published this week, he has just the legislative vehicle he needs to make any changes that such a strategy might call for. My hon. Friend is a good man. He knows that the online world needs a clear message from this House. I hope he listens intently to the debate today and takes back to his Department and to the industry the message that now is the time for change.
Order. If everybody takes about eight minutes and no longer, I will not have to impose a time limit and everybody will get in.
I thank the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) for securing this debate, and I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting it. She has done a great deal in her role as Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, and before that on the problem of the online abuse that is increasingly experienced by women. I commend her particularly for her work on the revenge porn legislation.
We know that online abuse takes various forms—cruel comments and messages, the sharing of photos without consent, being sent unwanted images, or threats of sexual or physical violence. Although there is a range of forms of online abuse, one thing is clear: online abuse is happening consistently across all social media platforms, and more needs to be done to stop it.
I am very pleased to be supporting, along with other Members, the Reclaim the Internet campaign of my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper). It demands change so that voices are not silenced by misogyny, sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia or any other form of intimidation online. I understand that the campaign was launched last year, but it will have its first big event on Monday 18 July, bringing together anti-bullying campaigners, groups that focus on online protection and members of the industry to see what steps can be taken to stop abusive behaviour. I hope that all Members get behind this campaign.
Online abuse affects many people and groups in society, but it seems that women are subject to particular vitriol online, and I want to focus my comments on women. Online abuse of women contains frequent use of threats of sexual violence and derogatory comments about women’s appearance and bodies. Women are the major victims of revenge porn, where explicit photos or videos are shared without consent, and those individuals who perpetrate online abuse seem to take even greater pleasure in shouting down women who speak out against it. We must address this.
I am sure that many of my fellow female Members from across the House are, unfortunately, all too familiar with this kind of online abuse. The anonymity and distance that people think social media gives them enables them to say things online that I hope they would never say face to face, but this online abuse must be tackled so that it does not prevent women from wanting to get involved in public life.
When it comes to young people and online abuse, it is young women who are disproportionately affected. A study by the Pew Research Centre in the United States found that 25% of women aged 18 to 24 had been targeted with online sexual harassment and 26% of women had been stalked online—that is one in four women. It is appalling. It needs to be made clear that this kind of behaviour is as unacceptable online as it is offline. The study also found that men are more likely than women to report online abuse, so there is some disconnect, whereby women do not feel able to report the abuse, or maybe feel that it is not even a reportable crime. We must address the issue of enabling women to take their complaints to the police.
The hon. Lady is right to identify the need to get more women to come forward and actively complain. Does she agree that one thing that could make a real difference is giving anonymity to the victims of revenge porn? That would bring more people forward to make complaints, which could lead to prosecutions.
The right hon. Gentleman makes a very interesting point, and we in this House need to look at it in more detail.
This issue affects younger women, and particularly young women who are still at school. One way in which online abuse was first brought to my attention was by head teachers in my constituency who came to see me to tell me how much of a problem online abuse is in school. They asked me to raise the issue in Parliament to see what could be done to help head teachers and others in schools to tackle it.
I am also a member of the Commonwealth Women Parliamentarians, a branch of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, and we have looked in great detail at the issue of violence against women, in particular the rise of online abuse as a form of violence against women. This is becoming such a significant element of the experience of women in public life that we made it one of the key themes of our international conference in 2015. We heard from groups, such as Internet Watch Foundation, that outlined the difficulty of tackling the prolific online abuse of women, along with legal professionals who pointed out that the current legislation is simply not where it needs to be to address this issue. The conference identified online abuse as a global phenomenon, and we now want to work with partners in other countries to get the best legislation possible. That work is ongoing.
I wish to praise my own constabulary in Durham and our Chief Constable Mike Barton, who has been at the forefront of speaking out on this issue from the policing perspective and has highlighted how long the police spend dealing with online incidents. He has talked about the need to clarify legislation to make it much easier for the police to deal with complaints about online abuse and to know how to tackle the problem and when to categorise incidents as criminal. We have to make sure that our police are equipped to deal with the ever-changing nature of crime and the new world of online harassment. In particular, we need to make sure that they have the necessary resources and training. At the moment, only about 7,500 out of 100,000 police officers in England and Wales have been trained.
I welcome the Government’s moves in this area, and I know that the Minister will be listening today, but we need to make sure that our laws reflect our increasingly technological society. I again pay tribute to the work being done at Durham University to outline to legislators how we need to consolidate and update existing legislation and then adopt a clear strategy on how it is implemented and enforced. Only when we do that will we—I hope—get the culture change that the right hon. Member for Basingstoke stressed and that we need if we are to stop all forms of online abuse.
I thank the Backbench Business Committee and my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) for giving us the opportunity to talk about this issue. Like many others, I suspect, I came to it as a result of a few incidents being reported in my constituency. I thought I was on the brink of uncovering a fairly limited, isolated and occasional problem, but on looking more deeply into the subject, I quickly discovered that it was a huge issue affecting vast numbers of people, young and old, and not just in my own patch of west Wales but across the UK.
The extent of the problem is well illustrated by information from Victim Support, which has worked with more than 12,000 children in schools over the last three years. It tells us that 56% of those kids were identified as victims of online crime—a staggering and worrying statistic; that 41% reported persistent and targeted bullying online from their peers; and that a third reported being sent non-requested online pornography. That is probably a significant underestimation of the problem, because, as we know, many people might be fearful of reporting abuse or might not know how or where to go to make a complaint.
I do not want to repeat my right hon. Friend’s contribution word for word, but this problem does not just impact on young people and their families. We are talking about racism, gender issues, homophobia, anti-Semitic abuse, disability issues and prejudice and intimidation, including in respect of religion, shape, style, sexual orientation and, in some cases, people’s everyday beliefs. YouGov recently surveyed just over 2,000 adults: 81% reported bullying as commonplace in school; 56% reported it as commonplace at work; and 64% believed it was widespread throughout society. I wonder what the contrast would have been had YouGov undertaken that survey five or 10 years ago.
Online abuse knows no boundaries: it affects the old, the young, the vulnerable, and it can, these days, be worryingly anonymous. It was described to me the other day as being like a persistent headache from which one simply cannot escape—there is no safe place or private little haven where one can escape the impact of the online bully. It can lead to reputational damage, financial loss, job loss, mental health issues, relationship breakdown, isolation and even, in the worst cases, suicide.
As we have discovered, part of the problem is that no one knows exactly how big the issue is. This is what we are trying understand. With over 30 pieces of legislation covering a variety of crimes, it is difficult to get a clear picture. The closest we got were statistics, courtesy of the Library, on the number of prosecutions under section 127 of the Communications Act 2003. In 2004, 143 people were cautioned, proceeded against and found guilty under this section. In 2014, that had risen to 1,209, and that represented an 18% increase on 2013. One figure on which we can rely, therefore, is the dramatic increase in the number of prosecutions under that one single piece—out of 30 pieces—of legislation.
There is a concern about consistent terminology. We seem unable to define clearly exactly what online abuse is. We all have our own private views, but there seems to be some misunderstanding within the law over exactly what “online abuse” means. Without that definition, there can be inconsistencies in the application of the law and in the assistance people get from those charged with protecting us from online abuse. We welcome the Crown Prosecution Service interim revised guidelines, but, as I will come to, there remains a question about whether they go far enough.
I am a little concerned that the Government earlier this year said that they
“did not intend to introduce specific additional legislation to address online harassment and internet trolling”.
The reason they gave was that they did not want young people to be unnecessarily criminalised. That is an entirely justifiable position, but it demonstrates a narrow awareness of the true scale of the problem and does not take into account the many other target groups of people who find themselves victims of this problem. Previously in the House, the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley), referring to the 30 laws, went so far as to say:
“It is imperative that these laws are rigorously enforced.”—[Official Report, 29 June 2016; Vol. 612, c. 327.]
We will have to address that issue with those charged with enforcement.
How does this harassment take place? As we have heard, it is abusive messages online, texts and emails, social media, digital photos used to embarrass the victim, account hacking, sexual grooming, extortion, blackmail and anything else these people can think of. The national stalking helpline, which has been referred to already, has statistics showing that most abusive behaviour is now digital rather than offline. As we become more dependent on online activity, so children and adults find themselves in a world in which there is no escape from this kind of activity.
I have some questions. Do we know the scale of the problem? It seems not. How many people are too afraid to report it? We do not know, except we know there are thousands. How many people do not know how to report it or who to report it to? We do not know that either, other than that it is probably plenty. Are schools equipped to spot the signs, and should the responsibility lie exclusively with schools? I do not think we know that either. Are the police trained? Do they have the resources? Are they serious about dealing with reports? We do not know. Are existing laws satisfactorily enforced? It appears from the Minister that there are further enforcement issues to address.
Do the social media platforms take their responsibilities seriously enough? As mentioned earlier, organisations such as Facebook and Twitter have done a great deal to improve the situation and take the problem seriously, but back when most communication was through printed newspapers—some of us will remember those days—if anyone had written a letter to an editor in the old days when that was possible, containing some of the stuff it now appears perfectly reasonable to put on Facebook or Twitter, there would have been no question of it seeing the light of day; it would have been torn up and chucked in the bin. Now, however, some of those platforms are facilitating some pretty disgusting material, and sort of saying, “Well, it’s up to the victim to complain to the police if they wish.” I am not sure that social media platforms, good work though they have done, are yet in a position that can be called fully responsible.
It is good that the CPS has acknowledged concerns, but bad that the Government do not feel obliged to do anything further at this stage. It is good that such a wide collection of charities, organisations and groups have helped us and are bringing the issue to public attention, and that His Royal Highness the Duke of Cambridge is behind the taskforce on the prevention of cyberbullying. As he put it, we need to stand up to bullies, not stand by.
I am worried that we live in a world where the kind of language, tone, and incidents we read about are becoming so widespread and common that they are almost becoming normal. If they become normal, what hope can we have for children and vulnerable adults who live in that kind of cyber-world? For that reason, I and my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke thought it appropriate to bring the issue to the attention of the House today.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) on securing this important debate.
This is a serious and growing problem for all in modern society, and it spans all age groups and demographics. Research commissioned by Demos found that in three weeks, 10,000 tweets were sent from UK accounts that aggressively attacked someone for being a “slut” or a “whore”. Revenge Porn Helpline received 4,000 calls in the last year, with cases affecting children as young as 11 years old being reported. According to the NASUWT, the largest teaching union in the UK, more than half of teachers also report receiving online abuse.
In February this year, the UK Safer Internet Centre published a study that found that of the 13 to 18-year-olds surveyed, 24% had been targeted owing to their gender, sexual orientation, race, religion, disability, or transgender identity. One in 25 said that they were singled out for abuse all or most of the time. Although such abuse has spanned all of society, teenagers with disabilities, and those from African, Caribbean, Asian, middle eastern and other minority ethnic groups were more likely to encounter cyber-bullying. Parliament and Governments across the UK have a responsibility to face up to that issue and take appropriate action to prevent and address it.
In Scotland, our First Minister has been vocal in condemning this issue, and the Scottish Government have provided full funding for Respectme, Scotland’s anti-bullying service, which is managed by the Scottish Association for Mental Health. That vital service works with adults who are involved in the lives of children and young people, to give them the practical skills and confidence to deal with children who are bullied and those who bully others. It is important that those of us in public life provide leadership on this issue, and Members will agree that no one should have to accept online abuse, and that those who have been subject to it should report it to the police. They must not suffer in silence or alone.
I want to use my personal experience of this issue to encourage the public to stand up to online abuse, and I ask those in public life to show stronger leadership in the conduct of our public debates. When I decided to stand for Parliament, I did so because I wanted to make a positive difference to the lives of people in my constituency and across the country. I did so in full knowledge that by standing up for what I believe, I would hold myself open to challenge from those who do not share my political beliefs. A robust, honest, political debate about our views and deeds is a vital part of any democracy, and we should embrace it. As we saw from the report published by Sir John Chilcot yesterday, an absence of critical debate in Parliament, Government, and our democratic system can have disastrous consequences. I therefore came here with the full knowledge and expectation that my words and actions would be held up to public scrutiny, and that is right.
What has sometimes taken my breath away, shocked my family, and reduced me to tears, is the vitriolic, hateful, and sometimes criminal levels of personal abuse that I and colleagues across the House have faced. I have received hateful handwritten letters that contained sexual slurs, phone calls to my office threatening violence towards me or my staff, and racist emails stating what people want to do to people like me who are Muslim. Although such communications are all too common, they are not an everyday experience, and I am grateful—as we should all be—to the police at Westminster, in Scotland, and across the UK, for their work to help and support those who fall victim to these crimes, and to investigate the perpetrators. The police provide a sympathetic level of support to victims, no matter what their background or circumstances, and it is important to encourage people to report such abuse at every stage.
I know that I am not alone in my determination to make myself open and available to those to whom I am accountable, and in the 21st century that means being active on social media. I agree with Scotland’s First Minster, who recently said that thanks to the positive power of Twitter and Facebook we can now communicate directly with our constituents about the work we are doing on their behalf, and hear their views without a filter or barrier between us. However, the great tragedy of that new technology has been the advancement in online bullying, abuse and threats, and that horrific experience is not confined to those of us who sit in this Chamber. Let me say directly to all those watching from outside Parliament who have been victims of online abuse, that all of us here today are standing right beside you. We know how it feels because we understand the pain you have been through, and we will do our best to address this horrendous issue.
In the past 14 months, I have been called a Nazi, received messages that called for me to be shot as a traitor, and read in tears as strangers attacked my father who passed away two years ago. Recently I spoke to the Sunday Mail newspaper, and I am grateful for the article it published, which included some of the dreadful things that have been said to me, none of which are worthy of being repeated because of the status and stature of this Chamber. However, my husband sees those messages, my children read this garbage, and my staff are required to wade through this sickening filth each day to get to the important information they need to do their jobs.
The hon. Lady is making a powerful point. Does she agree that all victims, including politicians, should be given all the help and support that they need and deserve to move on with their life and careers, and to bring the perpetrators to justice?
I agree entirely with the hon. Lady, and this abuse is difficult for anyone who faces it. There is an anticipation and expectation that we must be strong, but perhaps we are not and some people have more strength than others. Support mechanisms must exist, and we must help people to move on. No matter who is the victim, such abuse is disgusting and vile, which is why I support the honourable aims and objectives of the Reclaim the Internet campaign. I congratulate all those who have been involved in setting that up across the Chamber and beyond on seizing the initiative.
We must examine the role of the police and prosecutors, and be clear about when threats and harassment become crimes. Social media and publishing platforms must accept this serious issue, and take steps to address it. We are entitled to expect more from Facebook and Twitter in their handling of these issues. We must consider how best to provide support for victims and how to take on the trolls, and we must empower and educate our young people about these issues and how to address them.
Individual Members of Parliament are not responsible for the specific content of tweets or Facebook posts by others, but we are responsible for setting the tone of the national debate. I believe we are at a vital point in our politics. We have recently made, and will continue to make, significant and defining decisions about the type of country and society we want to be. We can embrace the politics of hope, or the politics of hate, and it is our role as elected representatives to show leadership and conduct ourselves in a way that defines the political debate. To those who may be watching this debate and dealing out abuse on the internet, perhaps even as we speak, I say this: you are the cowards, but we will stand up for the brave.
Tragically, online abuse has become part of all our lives. I have been subject to it, although I am not a member of a minority religion or race. Like many hon. Members I have received online abuse. Nothing has really hurt or affected me terribly, but on one occasion I simply posted some comments about boy racers who were causing antisocial behaviour. Within about an hour I was being abused from all round the globe, by boy racers who had obviously noticed a deficit in my sex life, and who were offering a wide range of suggestions to improve it, some of which would have ended in certain death. I had to take the post down—not because I was personally offended or concerned, but because I simply could not monitor it to ensure that that level of foul and abusive language was not left on my Facebook page for people to see. It is becoming clear to me from my mailbox how much online and internet abuse is affecting my residents—it is growing all the time, and includes women and children who face stalking online from ex-partners.
I have noticed within the past two years an enormous improvement in the police response. Whereas two years ago I found that the police suggested to women that they should simply come off Facebook or stop being online, they now more often have a more appropriate response—they now recognise that, in the modern age, people should be as safe online as they are when they walk down the street—but we have some way to go. I am pleased that, today, Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary has recognised Essex police and the work of my excellent chief constable, and rated them as effective and reliable in their treatment of vulnerable victims.
It is incredibly important that we get the legislation right—the Minister is listening. Chief Constable Stephen Kavanagh of Essex police has said, as has been pointed out, that the police deal with 30 different pieces of legislation that simply do not work for victims. The legislation is either out of date or does not go far enough and the police need to be properly prepared and trained to deal with the magnitude of cases of online abuse. Our role must be to future-proof the recently announced Digital Economy Bill, so that we are not permanently playing catch-up. The digital economy is growing more sophisticated all the time, and its pace of change outstrips that of all kinds of other technologies.
On a wider point about our culture, which was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart), we see the vile comments underneath stories in local or even national newspapers, and foul comments on Twitter, and in the past week, post-Brexit, we have seen an appalling upsurge in racial comments, all of which are vile and rightly should be prosecuted. Another shocking thing in the wake of Brexit is that nice, normally liberal-minded people—people who would profess to be progressives—also think it is reasonable to abuse 17 million of their fellow countrymen, including 73% of my constituents, as being clearly stupid or racist. It is no less illiberal or intolerant to think that all people of a certain race are of one set of opinions or one viewpoint. In our culture, people—seriously liberal, intelligent and educated people—think they can say those things online. They turn into keyboard warriors and say things that they would never dream of saying face to face to an individual.
We have a responsibility to deal with that abuse in our culture. If that is acceptable and if it is seen day by day, no wonder women do not come forward and they take attacks for granted; no wonder children think it is all right to be abused and attacked online; and no wonder the perpetrators and genuine criminals feel emboldened and that their behaviour is normal. I would say to everyone who goes online that they should post nothing that they would not write if they are not prepared to give their full name and address. It is a cultural issue, and legislation alone will never tackle it unless we take personal responsibility for changing our culture in this country.
It is a cliché to say that the internet has changed the world we live in, but it is a cliché because it is true. It is not possible to list the changes the internet has brought about because, over the past quarter of a century, it has simply become all pervasive. It has now reached the stage where, with smartphones, we carry it around in our pockets.
I know I am labouring a very obvious truth, but it is important in the debate to take a moment to reflect on just how central the internet has become to our daily lives. For my generation, the internet is a technical marvel, but for young people growing up today, the internet and the things that happen online are just another normal, everyday part of their world. That is why it is so important to have this debate. We cannot stand by and watch the sort of abuse and harassment that a small minority of internet users inflict on the rest of us become normalised. It is not too much of a wild prediction to say that the internet, social media and smartphones are here to stay, so it is vital that we do all we can to combat and prevent the abhorrent misuse of what are, when all is said and done, powerful tools for communicating thoughts and ideas.
Does my hon. Friend believe the Government should consider the additional costs incurred as a result of the bullying, trolling and abuse that people experience online? A few years ago in my area, there was a 25% increase in referrals to child and adolescent mental health services, so abuse clearly has a bigger societal impact, and a financial one.
I agree with my hon. Friend that that must be considered.
The sheer scale of the problem is daunting. As public figures, I am sure that many if not all hon. Members have been on the receiving end. To give just a few statistics, a Greater London Authority report suggests that only 9% of online hate crimes were investigated nationwide. Back in 2014, the charity Beat Bullying reported that a third of young people have experienced bullying online, including one in five eight to eleven-year-olds, while one in 13 was subjected to relentless abuse over a period of weeks, months or even years. Last year, the Revenge Porn Helpline received nearly 4,000 calls.
Similarly, the nature of the problem means there are no quick fixes. The anonymity that the internet allows means that users can choose to ignore the normal social conventions on what it is acceptable and not acceptable to say to someone, safe behind the mask of a fake username. Facebook did not create misogyny, nor did Twitter invent racism. People who use those and other online platforms to vent their hatred and abuse hold those views in the real world, and are simply taking advantage of the anonymity of cyberspace.
As much as we might like to pass a law that does away with intolerance, we cannot, but that is not to say that we are helpless, either as a Parliament or as a society. We might be unable to flick a legislative switch, but there are steps we can take to start tackling the problem of online abuse, including in respect of online platforms, for instance. Over the past few years, Facebook, Twitter and Google have begun engaging with their users and made it easier to report and counter online abuse. They are to be commended for that, but there are serious concerns that none of those companies is fully transparent about the measures it is taking internally to get to grips with the problem of people using its site for abuse. Twitter, for instance, claims that it employs more than 100 staff to deal with reported abuse, who presumably cover the entire network of 320 million users. Likewise, Facebook says it has several hundred people monitoring reported abuse. That sounds impressive, but we should remember that the site has 1.6 billion users.
On what we can do as lawmakers, there are practical responses that Ministers should consider. First and foremost, we need legislation that clearly defines online abuse—that is called for in the motion—and that consolidates our existing laws. According to Digital-Trust, more than 30 pieces of legislation are currently used to tackle online crimes including, of all things, the Offences Against the Person Act 1861. As much as we thank Viscount Palmerston, it is time we ended our piecemeal approach and provided the public with confidence and the police with the clarity they need to bring to book those who commit offences online.
The fragmented nature of the law means that the criminal justice system is often unsure whether an offence has been committed, and is thus not able to provide victims with the service and protection they expect and deserve. A consolidation of the legislation can be of value only if it includes a clear and consistent definition of exactly what constitutes online abuse. Our current mish-mash approach means that many malicious and abusive communications, which any reasonable person would judge to be unacceptable, often do not reach the legal threshold and so complaints against them cannot be progressed. A clearer definition would go a long way to eliminating this problem, and would build public trust that those in breach of the law can be held accountable.
It is obvious that the police are under incredible pressure trying to deal with even the small proportion of online abuse reported to them. It is estimated that half of all crimes reported to the police have some digital element, and they expect this to rise to 70% in the next five years. However, just 7.5% of officers in England and Wales are trained to investigate digital crime. The scale of the problem is such that all police officers need to be in a position to tackle online abuse: to know how to investigate it and secure evidence. A consolidation of legislation must be backed up by a corresponding overhaul of enforcement if we are to make any headway, and that means not only a review of the training given to officers but a serious rethink about approaches to police recruitment. I appreciate the strain on police budgets, but unless we dramatically expand our police’s ability to clamp down on online crime, we will be stuck trying to apply 20th-century methods to 21st-century problems.
It is encouraging that online safety is now part of the national curriculum. We cannot underestimate the importance of education in dealing with online abuse. As much as we expect our children to learn the difference between right and wrong in the real world, and expect them to get along with one another at school, so we must press home, and press home early, that the same standards should apply online. Clearly, there is no magic bullet for dealing with online abuse, but that does not mean the Government should shy away from confronting it. It will take a broad strategy, worked out across Departments and implemented with service providers, charities and many others. Such plans are not cobbled together overnight, but I press the Minister to take today’s debate as a starting point. If we have shown anything, it is that there is a strong desire for action across the House and beyond. I sincerely hope the Government will be bold in their response to a problem that we simply cannot allow to fester.
I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) and my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) for securing this important debate.
This is an issue of utmost importance to me, made all the more personal after a high profile case of revenge porn, which grabbed national headlines, involving a perpetrator and victims from my home town and constituency back in April. In the wake of that case, lessons have been learned locally. I am very pleased to say that the police and crime commissioner and the chief constable are reviewing awareness training for those on the frontline to improve the experience of victims, secure greater justice for them, and to better reflect how serious and how damaging online abuse is. We need that change in culture so that online abuse is recognised as real world, causing as it does emotional, psychological and physical damage. A freedom of information inquiry by the BBC found that in over 1,000 cases, 11% of offenders were charged and 7% received a caution.
I would like to share a victim’s plea to us. Her perpetrator was one of the 7%.
“This is an open letter to those who have the power to lobby for change. This is my story.
The perpetrator was my manager. We stayed in contact long after I left my job, remaining friendly acquaintances via social media. It wasn’t until April this year that I discovered a message on my social media alerting me to a website that contained my images. This website allowed individuals from all over the world to upload and view pictures of unsuspecting victims, many of them children, and using those images as fodder for torture fantasies. My page, which had been created in October 2015, revealed my full name, my personal Facebook account, a picture of my toddler daughter. Alongside these images, there were captions and incitements such as ‘would love to beat her’, ‘she deserves to be gang raped’, and urging people to find me, make contact and show me what I ‘deserve’.
I felt demeaned, exposed, utterly humiliated and embarrassed. Someone out there held all the power. I wasn’t even in control of my own image any more. I needed to take back control, so I put on my investigator hat and after many, many hours of trawling I thought I had found the perpetrator. Initially, I felt relief and I contacted the police the next morning believing I had caught a criminal red-handed. The police operator told me that there was ‘nothing they could do’ as it was not a police matter, it was a Facebook issue. I was advised just to block him, as he obviously wasn’t my friend. I hung up the phone feeling bitterly let down and confused. I was told I wouldn’t be getting a crime number, as my case ‘isn’t a real crime’ and more of a civil matter, and perhaps I should seek legal advice. That legal advice told me that the definitions of the new law regarding revenge porn and its phrasing meant that my case wouldn’t be suitable.
Since I have chosen to bring this subject to the public’s attention, I have had mixed reactions to the whole episode. I have had random strangers come up to me in the street and start talking to me about it, which I do still find embarrassing. I have had people talk to me about it at parties, where I should be enjoying myself. I have had customers ask me where they recognise me from, then give me a sympathetic, pitying look when I confirm from where. Overall, I have been treated like a victim by everyone apart from the law.
Perpetrators surely need to fear that their online actions will have real consequences. My photos are still online. I am sick of being a victim. What I ask is that, with your help, never again will I and others be made to feel insignificant when reporting an online abuse crime.”
I thank the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) and the hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) for securing the debate. We have already heard many striking and distressing personal accounts today and I am honoured to follow the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Caroline Ansell).
As we have heard, there has been a frightening increase in online abuse, digital crime and hate crime. Many Members have been affected, as have numberless people outside this House. Children, too, have been affected. The national police lead said last November that 50% of all reported crime now has an online component. It is evident that the law has not kept up with criminal activity. Online platform providers are, at best, slow to address abuse. They should be far more effective and rigorous in holding both abusers and themselves to account.
For all those reasons, in March this year I introduced a ten-minute rule Bill on this very issue, drafted by Harry Fletcher of the Digital-Trust. There are over 30 statutes passed over many decades that cover online abuse crime. My Bill would place responsibility on the Government to consolidate them all. Many online activities may or may not be against the law—the Bill would clarify that. For example, it would be an offence to install a webcam on a person without their permission or without legitimate reason. In addition, it would be illegal to repeatedly locate, listen to or watch a person without legitimate purpose. The Bill would restrict the sale of spyware to persons over 16 only. It would also be wrong for a person to take multiple images of a person, unless it was in the public interest to do so, without that person’s permission and where the intent was not legitimate—we have heard about a number of such cases today. The Bill would make the law stronger on abusive content. Again, police officers are uncertain about what is and is not a crime, and they are overwhelmed by the sheer volume of abuse they see. We have also heard about inconsistencies of approach by the police. The Bill would make it clear that it is an offence to post images online where the intention is to humiliate or abuse the victim. It would also create an offence to post any message that is discriminatory or would incite abusive activity. All those new offences would, if put into action, carry on conviction a sentence of up to 12 months’ custody.
Any new powers for the police or the Crown Prosecution Service would, of course, have limited impact without changes to culture and training. The police must take online abuse and hate crime seriously. The Bill would therefore place a responsibility on the Secretary of State for Education to ensure that all establishments include sessions that warn children and students of the risks of online services. We know that this is happening in our schools and that it is an ongoing issue. Tokenistic approaches to the curriculum will not be sufficient. The Home Office would be tasked with ensuring that the police are trained and that they record complaints of digital hate crimes and abuse.
Finally, the Bill would place duties on providers of online services to adhere to codes of professional standards, to publish safety impact assessments and to co-operate fully with the police in any ongoing investigation. The relevant Ministers should ensure that the best quality standards are followed across the industry.
I am sure that we all have a number of case studies that we could discuss. Someone who contacted me wishes to remain anonymous, so I shall respect that, but I very much wanted to raise his case because it involves Facebook. The gentleman in question is a teacher. Before I was fortunate enough to arrive in this place about a year ago, I was also a teacher. I was very much aware of how vulnerable teachers are to comments from pupils and others and also, given the importance of child protection, how that vulnerability can be used against teachers and how little protection they have.
This gentleman contacted me earlier this week to express his frustration at Facebook. Despite having no Facebook account himself, pupils had stolen images from his websites and used them to create a false Facebook page in his name. This page then attracted other pupils at the school. At one stage, the headteacher, who not unusually had little understanding or experience of Facebook, suspected the teacher of deliberately attracting pupils. If the pupils had not finally admitted to creating the false page, the teacher could easily have lost his job. He was effectively unable to prove that he was not responsible for the page.
In this instance, the victim stated that the police could only advise him to contact Facebook, but in his experience Facebook was unhelpful—here I am summarising the magnitude of the problems he had with it. First, the teacher had to get the password details from the pupils before the page could be taken down. Secondly and importantly, in raising questions about data protection, it became apparent that the teacher had to apply to the Data Protection Commissioner of Ireland, because that is where Facebook’s international office is based. All law, except that of the United States and Canada, has to be handled through that data protection commissioner. It seems that Facebook has broad expectations of users’ behaviour, but is unwilling to take much responsibility, if any, as a platform for that behaviour. There is a worrying lack of procedures to take down false sites, with the onus entirely on the victims to prove their identity. Facebook and other sites need to be held to account for the nature of the services they provide to users, and for whether those services incorporate proper care for both customers and the public at large.
It is not good enough for Twitter to tell me how to hide myself away and block messages from certain people—I had one of these messages when I last looked at Twitter about 20 minutes ago. I want those people and Twitter held to account if there are unacceptable messages on my Twitter account. Finally, I believe that the nature of how social media providers fulfil their duty of care to private individuals requires far fuller parliamentary scrutiny, and I await the Minister’s response.
I add my thanks to the Backbench Business Committee for granting this debate, and I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) and my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) for securing it. I am sure that many Members of all parties will, like me, have met in their surgeries the victims of online abuse—or, more often than not, their parents, who come to us seeking some form of redress or often just some ongoing safety for their children. It is interesting to note that organisations such as the Girl Guides with their annual girls’ attitude survey have ascertained that cyberbullying is in the top three concerns of girls between the ages of 15 and 20. It is growing in its significance and impact on its victims.
Abuse is abuse, wherever and however it happens. Just because it is online does not make it any less awful, but it does make it significantly harder to identify perpetrators and bring them to justice. It is simply not good enough to shrug one’s shoulders and dismiss the internet as some sort of wild west—ungovernable and devoid of social norms and the laws of the physical world. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke said, we must bring an end to anonymity.
We must remember that many of the victims are children. I vividly recall my daughter’s transition from primary to secondary school, now some years ago, when her headteacher got parents together to talk about the perils of Facebook. At that time, social media was growing in popularity, but was still relatively small. There was not the multitude of platforms that there are today. The phrase the headteacher used will always stick with me—that, frankly, in her view children were losing the ability to empathise. They were making their unpleasant comments online from their smartphone, and unlike in the playground, they could not see the reaction in someone’s eyes. People are not learning about the hurt caused, but simply banging out a message that can have a terrible impact. The ability to understand and comprehend the hurt that has been caused is disappearing.
It is not just children who are losing the ability to empathise. People often say the most dreadful things online, which they would never repeat in person or even on the telephone. If I receive an abusive email, I sometimes find that the best tactic is to phone up the person. Suddenly, they turn into the most polite and delightful constituent that I could ever encounter.
Does my hon. Friend agree that we could take that slightly further? I have knocked on the doors of people who have been particularly abusive, and they crumble.
My hon. Friend is slightly braver than I am. She earlier used the phrase “keyboard warriors” who we find are incredibly brave in the sanctuary of their own homes, but much more timid in the real world. When online trolls are arrested and we see their pictures in the newspapers, I always think how terribly inadequate they look. The monsters they have made of themselves in people’s minds are often not borne out in real life. They simply do not understand the terror that they can cause.
I have had my own experience and vividly remember a Facebook message from someone purporting to be a woman, hiding behind the photograph of a dead lady whose death had been covered in the newspaper. I was sent the most terrible message, threatening me with rape, torture and, ultimately, death. The greatest lesson I learned from that is that it can take many months to wheedle identities out of Facebook. Facebook appears to have become the bogeyman of this debate, but I think deservedly so. When we find the actual identities, it brings a sense of relief, because they are an identifiable person, albeit not necessarily someone who lives anywhere nearby. Such messages can still be absolutely terrifying however.
Newspapers are not allowed to print libels or defamatory or slanderous comments that somebody else makes. Why can that not apply to social media platforms too?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that it should apply to social media platforms, and we as individuals should be able to take action against them much more quickly and effectively. As I said, it is as if the internet has become a wild west. Companies are often registered in the Republic of Ireland and it is difficult from here to get the redress that we want.
Sadly, in this place, we have come to expect the trolling, the bile often spat in the dead of night, sometimes even from professional people, who we might have hoped would value their own reputations and know better. We know that the bar is set higher for Members of Parliament: we are in the public eye and we have to expect a bit of knockabout, as it were. Actually, though, it has gone a great deal further than that.
I pay tribute to the work of the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) to reclaim the internet. If someone sends me something pernicious, one of my favourite tactics, inspired by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips), who is not in her place today, is to reply with a picture of a kitten. I presume I will now get trolled for that. We have to reclaim the internet; we have to be bold enough to stand up for ourselves and try to engender a bit of humour and kindness. That is a key point: there is no kindness on the internet, but when did it become okay to play the man and not the ball?
My right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke advanced some very cogent and sensible arguments. I know that Ministers have worked hard with some of the leading companies in trying to find practical solutions to the problems of reporting and identifying perpetrators. As we have heard, there are laws relating to harassment and grooming, but there are real anxieties about how victims can report crimes easily and ensure that their voices are heard.
Does my hon. Friend think that we should look to countries such as Australia and New Zealand, which have established websites to facilitate reporting? Indeed, there is a risk that their ways of tackling the problem are leaving the United Kingdom behind.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We must not be left behind; we must find better methods of reporting, particularly where children are concerned. Let me reinforce my right hon. Friend’s earlier plea. There need to be safe spaces for children, and mechanisms that enable young people to know who they can turn to. A critical part of that can take place in schools, through personal, social, health and economic education and, in particular, sexual relationships education.
Young people need to learn about consent. They need to learn what is okay in a relationship and what is not, and they also need to be able to turn to responsible adults who can ensure that they are adequately safeguarded and protected. We want them to be confident in themselves, and to know who they can turn to in a crisis. That is one of the reasons why I am so keen on compulsory PSHE and SRE. We need young people to be able to recognise what constitutes an abusive relationship, we need people whom they know they can tell, and we need teachers who are equipped to deal with these subjects. We know that they are not easy subjects to teach, so they should be made statutory, and teachers should be trained so that they themselves will be confident in their ability to deliver excellent quality in this respect.
My right hon. Friend described the blurring of offline and online worlds. We desperately need to plot a path towards ensuring that our children are much more secure and protected.
I, too, thank the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) for initiating the debate. I also thank the Backbench Business Committee. I think it very important for us to raise these issues. I have been shocked by some of the examples that have been given today, but I am afraid I am going to add to them.
Online abuse is not a technological problem; it is a social problem that just happens to be powered by technology. I will not deny that social media can be a force for good, disseminating information and allowing people to share jokes or simply keep in contact with friends and relatives. As has already been pointed out, we, as MPs, are encouraged to be as accessible as possible—to be out there with websites and our Facebook and Twitter pages, staying connected to our constituents and keeping them as well informed as possible—but more and more, especially in the case of female MPs, our “out-thereness” makes us a target for online abuse. Indeed, most prominent women in any field will have stories of vile comments posted to or about them, usually by anonymous sources. When it is allowed to rampage unchecked and unmoderated, social media becomes much more accurately titled “unsocial media”.
There is, of course, the “free speech” argument, which unfortunately appears to many people to be the divine right to say whatever is on one’s mind without any regard for the consequences. With free speech, however, comes the responsibility to deal with the consequences of one’s words. What concerns me, particularly in the case of Twitter and Facebook, is the apparent lack of a coherent policy on what constitutes “online abuse”. Let me give a few examples.
Twitter policy states:
“We do not tolerate behaviour that crosses the line into abuse, including behaviour that harasses, intimidates, or uses fear to silence another user’s voice.”
With that in mind, when I received a threat on Twitter during the referendum debate—
“We’ll see what you say when an immigrant rapes you or one of your kids”—
I reported it to Twitter, using its online pro forma. Surely this racist, violent and targeted abuse crossed the line into behaviour that harasses and intimidates, which Twitter policy claims to be against. But no; the response that I received from Twitter was
“it’s not currently violating the Twitter rules”.
The killers of Lee Rigby, who was from Middleton in my constituency, posted explicitly on Facebook what they were planning, yet that was never picked up and investigated. I recently reported a vile and misogynistic comment made about another female MP on Facebook. It read—and I quote selectively—
“She looks like”
“mutant and should be burnt at the stake”.
That comment, with its foul language and its violent categorisation of women as “witches” who need to be disposed of, received the following comment from Facebook:
“We’ve reviewed the comment you reported for promoting graphic violence and found that it doesn’t violate our community standards.”
The reply continued:
“Please let us know if you see anything else that concerns you. We want to keep Facebook safe and welcoming for everyone.”
Well, if that is Facebook’s idea of a safe and welcoming environment, I would not like to see what it considers to be a no-go area.
Seriously—and I am being 100% serious—the responsible thing for Twitter and Facebook to do is to use algorithms to identify hate speech. Words such as “Islamophobe”, “murder” and “rape” could then be picked up, and the accounts in question could be investigated. It is totally irresponsible of social media platforms to allow unchecked and unregulated discourse. That would not happen in any other walk of life.
Twitter and Facebook appear to rely solely on reports by users of abuse and hate speech. They place the responsibility entirely on the user, and even then the pro-forma reporting procedure is often too simplistic to allow the actual problems and concerns to be accurately conveyed. Yes, the police can be notified, but we are all aware of the diminution in police numbers that has taken place under this Government and the previous coalition. I call on the Government to make funds available for training, and to increase police numbers in order to deal with online abuse. I was interested by my right hon. Friend’s suggestion that social media platforms should be asked to provide a levy to pay for those measures.
I have concentrated on abuse directed at female politicians, although I accept that online abuse takes many other forms and that many other groups are targeted, because this does seem to be a gender issue. Abuse is directed more towards female politicians than towards our male counterparts, and studies have shown that, in the United Kingdom, 82% of the abuse that is recorded comes from male sources. Social networks could take a strong and meaningful stance against harassment simply by applying the standards that we already apply in our public and professional lives. Wishing rape or other violence on women, or using derogatory slurs, would be unacceptable in most workplaces or communities, and those who engaged in such vitriol would be reprimanded or asked to leave. Why should that not be the response in our online lives?
Let us never forget that words carry weight, and that language has a consequence. Once it has been said, it cannot be unsaid. Whether it be uttered face to face or typed from behind a social media avatar, there is no hiding from meaning, and we should confront now the ever-spreading plague of misogyny, abuse and threats online.
I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller), and to the Backbench Business Committee. My right hon. Friend is a great champion of causes such as this, and I think that the passion that is being expressed in every speech shows how important the issue is.
Twenty-one years ago, I sat with a wise and, I now realise, very farsighted friend, and we talked about a new phenomenon called the internet. All that I knew about it was that the scientists at university used it to send messages to each other, but he said that we would live through a revolution as great and thrilling as that wrought by the proliferation of newsprint in the 17th century, which would lead to a new way of communicating— indeed, a complete shift in social discourse—and so it has proved. I have returned to that conversation many times over the past two decades, and never more so than in preparing for this debate. We, as legislators, are print children, on the whole, but we need to draft laws for our digital children.
I would like to quote from Lord Toulson’s dissenting judgment in the case of PJS v. News Group Newspapers. I am sure that hon. Members know of that case. It involves a celebrity couple who were trying to stop the publication of their identities in print form, even though their names were widely quoted on the internet. Lord Toulson said:
“The court must live in the world as it is and not as it would like it to be”
“the court needs to be very cautious about granting an injunction preventing publication of what is widely known, if it is not to lose public respect for the law by giving the appearance of being out of touch with reality.”
I am not passing comment on the rights or wrongs of that particular case, but making the point that we, as legislators, must adapt to the new lives, and threats, that face all of us today.
Online abuse is crime. It is not banter, it is not teasing, and it is not fair exercise of free speech. The hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Ms Ahmed-Sheikh) spoke very powerfully. Indeed, many hon. Members—females, although I am glad now to see some men in the Chamber—have talked about their own experiences. I pay tribute to them, as I do to the victim statement that we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Caroline Ansell). Online abuse, in and of itself, is a crime in terms of the effects that it has on its victims: anxiety, depression, and changes in everyday behaviour resulting in people staying at home and not being able to go to their jobs. Sometimes it leads to suicide. Crucially, online abuse is a gateway to real-world stalking, physical and sexual abuse, and even murder. Digital-Trust has highlighted the murders of Angela Hoyt, Ildiko Dohany, Lorna Smith and Sofyen Belamouadden, all of which began in the virtual world. Like many hon. Members, I am sure, every time I meet teachers they report online abuse as one of the factors in the growth of mental health problems in the young over the past decade.
In terms of crime prevention and reduction, there need to be constant changes to environmental and societal attitudes which run in parallel with, or sometimes slightly behind, changes in the law. Many hon. Members have said that there needs to be cultural change as well as legislative change, but looking back on social changes over the past half century, often we in this place are the leaders and society follows us.
I am very grateful for the strength of feeling expressed across the House. I have introduced a private Member’s Bill, to be debated in March, to address malicious communications on social media. I would be delighted to work with colleagues from across the House and, I hope, Ministers, to see whether we can use that as a vehicle for the legislative change that the hon. Lady talks about.
I applaud the hon. Lady’s private Member’s Bill, and I am sure that lots of people will support her next year.
On legislative and societal changes going in step together, let us think about the strides that have been taken over the past 40 years in changing society’s attitudes to physical and sexual violence against women and children. When I started at law school, rape in marriage was still allowed. When we were all at primary school, our teachers were allowed to smack us around the head. We had to legislate on these things before society followed us. It is incumbent on us, as legislators, to lead that charge.
Schools now take very seriously their duties to children with regard to bullying and what happens in the playground, but we must also make the virtual playground where many of our children and grandchildren spend so much time—indeed, we all do—a safe space for them. The internet, as compared with the real world, is still largely ungoverned. Some people argue that it is an ungovernable space where an online abuser’s odious views go unchallenged. In fact, they are not just unchallenged but reinforced, amplified and nurtured.
Having spoken to my area’s chief constable in Lancashire, I know how much time he and all his colleagues take in dealing with online abuse, yet, try as they might, they need more support. Victim Support has said—many hon. Members have quoted these statistics—that only 7,500 out of 125,000 police officers have been specially trained to investigate digital crime. I ask the Minister to make representations to Home Office Ministers about plans to increase that number.
There is currently a plethora of laws that deal with online abuse. My right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke, very politely, used the word “piecemeal”. I think we might better call it a ragbag of laws. I urge the Government to carry out a wholesale review of these laws so that we are not out of touch with reality. I wholeheartedly echo and agree with my right hon. Friend’s suggested changes.
Our current law of libel had its origins in the 17th century proliferation of newsprint. We need to respond to the current revolution in communication and social discourse by legislating, in the words of Lord Toulson, for
“the world as it is and not as”
“would like it to be.”
I am grateful, Mr Deputy Speaker, for being escalated up the speaker’s list to allow me to leave the debate to attend a Committee.
I extend my thanks to the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) for securing this debate, and also thank the Backbench Business Committee. It strikes me that the Chamber is dominated by a female presence. I think that confirms what we might not know scientifically but know instinctively—that this issue confronts female MPs far more often than it should, and much of it, at its heart, is based on misogyny.
We have heard from a number of speakers, and we all understand that online abuse is a serious and growing problem. Unfortunately, we live in a world where it is deemed acceptable for some people—“keyboard warriors”, as they would be called—to hide behind their computer or tablet and target abuse and aggression towards people they do not like, simply because they can. The anonymity and the distance from which the abuse is hurled gives the sender of these messages courage that they would not otherwise feel, with the added bonus that it is felt that whatever one wishes to say, however hurtful, aggressive, threatening or nasty, can be said with impunity. How cowardly! I applaud and fully support the work of the Reclaim the Internet campaign, which is a call for action to challenge abuse online, bringing together groups from across civic society to signal that enough is enough. Such online abuse is not acceptable, and anyone responsible for it must be held accountable.
One of the most pernicious aspects of online abuse is that it seeks to normalise bullying and intimidation of other people. We would not tolerate such abuse offline, so it must not be tolerated online. What kind of world are we building for our younger people when the UK Safer Internet Centre has published a study that found that of the 13 to 18-year-olds surveyed, 24% had been targeted due to their gender, sexual orientation, race, religion or disability? Victim Support has found that 41% of young people have reported persistent and targeted bullying online from their peers. Those who send such messages are clearly intending to hurt, frighten or distress the recipients. Do they think of the consequences—the impact that their abuse has on the recipient? Sadly, I believe, they simply do not care.
In the political sphere, too, people use the internet to threaten violence, hurl vile abuse, or seek to silence the voice of others through intimidation. This is simply not acceptable, and that is the message that must go out from this place. Robust political debate is part of our public life, and we must foster and cherish it, but what cannot be tolerated is the lowering of political debate to threats of violence or to insults based on misogyny, homophobia, sexism, racism or disability. We must all counter the idea that it is legitimate to abuse someone online simply because they are in public life. That just erodes and cheapens democracy and ultimately legitimises abusive behaviour in wider society.
Regardless of political differences, debates must be conducted with respect, but too many people have forgotten that over the past couple of years. Online abuse can be just as destructive, distressing, upsetting and disempowering as physical abuse. As far as I can see, the perpetrator of such abuse seeks to shut up, close down, and silence the voice of the person they choose to abuse. The police are working hard to adapt practices to cope with the new world in which we live, where the internet has added a new dimension to criminal acts—and make no mistake, criminal acts are what we are talking about here.
Online abuse is currently covered by at least 30 different pieces of legislation. The legislation must be fully utilised, and Victim Support is calling for a review to identify any possible gaps. That is an important point because it is estimated that 70% of all crime will be cyber-enabled in around five years’ time, and the criminal justice system must be in a position to respond flexibly and adequately and to support victims when required. I would like to hear the Minister’s thoughts on that.
The everyday, casual online abuse seen by too many people must not be viewed as harmless, or dismissed and deleted. It must be sought out and challenged. Like so many of my colleagues and too many of the ordinary hard-working people whom we represent, we have to face this casual abuse and, like so many others, I have until recently simply pressed the delete or block buttons whenever I have been in receipt of such nastiness. Now, however, I report abuse to the police and have had cause to do so recently in the light of the appalling and dreadful murder of the late Member for Batley and Spen.
No one should have to tolerate abuse or bullying—no matter what their line of work or what justification the sender of such abuse might have. It is not on. It seems that the most common victims of such abuse are women and children, but the problem is widespread and affects others outside those groups. If we are to seek any credibility in this place, we all need to send out a clear message and use our position as MPs and as leaders of political parties to condemn this behaviour unequivocally, as the First Minister of Scotland has done, wherever it comes from.
Like many hon. Members, I used to think that deleting such messages was enough, but no longer. MPs have a duty to ensure that messages are challenged and that doing so deters those who would engage in such activity. I sincerely hope that this debate will send a clear message to those who feel that they can abuse any person they choose by typing nasty and abusive comments with their keyboard that there is no hiding place. Such behaviour is cowardly and reprehensible, and we must encourage and support all victims of abuse to report it to the police. We as MPs must ensure that we do the same. It is time to reclaim social media from those who use it with impunity as a vehicle for working out their personal frustrations and tendency to bully. Enough is enough.
I have met my fair share of bullies in my time. As you may have noticed, Mr Deputy Speaker, I am, as they used to say in my home town of Liverpool, a chap who is built like a brick outhouse—I think that is the parliamentary version of the term—so bullies have not really bothered me much over the years. However, I am aware, not least as a father, that the internet and social media have brought about two big changes that have meant that I probably would not have avoided bullying were I a teenager now.
First, bullying is now 24/7. As other Members have said, it is inescapable. There is no refuge from bullying these days—no chance to get home, shut the back door and sit down to your fish fingers safe in the knowledge that it will not occur again, at least for a few hours. Secondly, social media has unfortunately decreased our children’s resilience, creating a whole host of exploitable vulnerabilities, including eating disorders, self-harm, harmful sexual behaviour, depression and anxiety. For teenagers, many of whom are hard-wired to take the judgments of others to heart, the amplification of bullying that the online world allows will obviously lead to more permanent damage.
As many Members have said, it is pretty shocking that we have allowed things to get to this stage. We seem to have sleepwalked into an epidemic of terrible mental health, particularly among children, whose self-confidence has been wrecked by social media with its unrealistic expectations and the kind of digital solipsism that it seems to encourage. Perhaps it is because we have been too wrapped up in our own smartphones to notice their obsession—too wrapped up to remember that there are two distinct types of people in society: adults and children. It is the job of adults to make decisions about the boundaries that protect children from harm even when they do not always like it. Instead, I fear that we have become carried away by technology, which has led us to become too indulgent to be seen to be backtracking.
The current generation of teenagers are glued, perhaps irreversibly, to a social media world filled with images of continuously perfect, happy people—so obviously fictional—paired with the unavoidable realisation that they can never attain that ideal. The result is both an insatiable sense of entitlement combined with a crushing hopelessness, which can only lead to self-loathing and anger. They are too often made to feel like failures. Throw into that mix the pressure of exams and the signal sent to children that their entire future and value as a person rests on their academic performance and social standing at school, and it is no wonder that cyber-bullying is the trigger for a whole host of problems. Such pressures contribute to deep unhappiness and many feel the need to put on a brave face and not burden their families, which compounds the isolation. As the president of ChildLine, Esther Rantzen, wrote recently, unhappiness and low self-esteem are the main new phenomena that the organisation is seeing. It only appeared in the top five of children’s worries a couple of years ago but accounted for 35,244 of their counselling sessions last year alone. Make no mistake, we have done little to halt the trend and it is only going to get worse. We must not consign the next generation of teenagers to the same fate.
Turning to the main subject of the debate, the resilience-sapping effect of social media and the addiction to smartphones are far more fundamental and intractable than the cyber-bullying issue, which is a product of them. There is much to be said about how we tackle cyber-bullying. Many people need to be involved in that conversation and consultation, which will have to include the mega-corporations, such as Facebook, that are the common platforms on which the problem occurs. We have let the resilience issue get out of control as a result of complacency in Parliament and an inertia in law, and we need to address them with more urgency than the bullying.
Like many Members, I hope that the response to the bullying issue will take the shape of a new online offences Act, which would replace the 30-plus pieces of legislation currently covering online abuse. It would include, among other things, a specific online abuse offence as well as an extensive definition of the duties of internet service providers in relation to young people. On resilience, we also need to get on with a children and young persons Act that is fit for this age, in which we can clearly define the duties of parents, in law, to help them cope with the impact of social media on their children. It is plainly not right that under-16s spend an average of three hours a day online, making them, according to experts, much more likely to suffer mental health problems, or that two in three 12 to l5-year-olds have their own smartphone given that parents have no idea what they are doing on them.
Spending too much time on social media has been shown to inhibit personal development by many different researchers, including in research carried out by the Government. We must be less complacent about the evidence. The change has been allowed to happen partly owing to parliamentary complacency, but also parental naivety and short-sightedness, and we need to put things right. No one is particularly to blame. That this House has failed to consider the issue properly is down to the same reason that parents across the country and around the world get caught out so badly by the change. Nothing comparable was around when we were growing up, and we are not equipped with the knowledge or understanding to guide children in their use of social media, especially as children themselves seem to be driving the evolution of the platforms on a daily basis.
The pace of change also explains how the main pieces of legislation on children are so out of date. The Children and Young Persons Act 1933 and the Children Act 1989 constructed the framework under which we still operate today, but obviously they do not have anything to say about parents’ duties to children in the social media age or about cyber-bullying. Making it harder still, it appears that getting the guidance and supervision right requires a level of intrusiveness that was not commonplace among parents of previous generations, one that children today will certainly resent and resist. Understandably, given where we are now, any group of teenagers would react with horror at the idea of handing their smartphones in at the beginning of the school day and picking them up at home time.
My hon. Friend says that teenagers might resist that, but he began by saying that there are two groups of people in this world—adults and children—and surely it is incumbent on us adults to make them give these things up.
Exactly, as I was about to say. Let me continue: but I will be firm here and say that the reason we have not done something in a systematic way, when teachers and experts on children have been telling us for some time that there was trouble brewing, is down to an increased weakness of parents and some teachers who act as though it was the children who should set the rules. Once again, adults seem to be unwilling to act as adults, meaning action has been weak or tentative. However, given the gravity of the situation in children’s mental health, in particular, we obviously cannot afford for that to continue. We need a new direction from which to approach this important area, but it is right to deal with the causes as well as the fallout.
I fear that this situation is again down to an indulgence that leads people to the conclusion that we can never declare that what someone is doing is harmful or bad for them, even when that person is not yet an adult and cannot be expected to understand properly what is good for them. Increased funding for talking therapies for distressed young people, which everybody has been pushing for over the past few months, is right, but no amount of therapy will stem the tide of the children’s mental health crisis if the root cause of why we need this resilience is not addressed.
I agree with many hon. Members who have spoken today about the need for legislation to clarify and consolidate the law relating to offences committed online. More fundamentally, however, we need to look more seriously at the resilience of children, at availability and at the time they spend online, and decide for ourselves, as parents and as a country, whether we should set firmer boundaries about what they can and cannot do in their own time.
I thank the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) for securing this debate, through the Backbench Business Committee. We have heard some powerful and personal accounts from Members from across the Chamber, and it goes without saying that online abuse is a severe and expanding issue. It is one that the Scottish National party utterly condemns, and my party supports any measures that may ensure that those responsible for this abuse are held accountable for their actions. I know those sentiments are carried throughout this place, on a cross-party basis, and the consensus on this issue is important in order to tackle it. The scale of online abuse is truly shocking; there is much evidence to suggest that it has become incredibly widespread. The chief executive of the College of Policing, Alex Marshall, has stated that there is anecdotal evidence to suggest that complaints relating to social media now make up at least half of all calls to the police.
There has been equally widespread coverage of online abuse, particularly in the tabloid press, although some may contend that this has the potential to add to the problem, rather than address it. Sometimes the headlines and tabloid splashes can detract from the severity of the reality of online abuse. The think tank Demos has conducted research suggesting that about 12,000 threatening tweets containing the word “rape” were sent from UK accounts in one year. That is just one example of the plethora of misogynist and aggressively abusive tweets sent to women online. The recent Gamergate controversy showed some horrific online abuse of women in the video game industry. What was truly shocking was the herd mentality and the co-ordinated campaigns of abuse targeting individuals. Gamergate garnered much media attention stateside, and measures to tackle online harassment are being taken more seriously by Congress as a result.
This abuse is often vicious and nasty. Although most of us will have the strength of character to deal with it, it does not make it any more acceptable. We also have a duty of care to our young people, many of whom will not be well placed to deal with this abuse and cyber-bullying. I commend the Department for Education’s efforts in this area, particularly the advice it issues to help deal with cyber-bullying. The work of organisations such as ChildLine and the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children is even more praiseworthy; their freephone helplines are an invaluable resource, as is their online advice for those being bullied. I would also like to take this opportunity to commend the work of the Time for Inclusive Education campaign in Scotland. In a very short space of time, the campaign has managed to garner the support of the main political parties and of high-profile figures across Scotland. Equality training is an important measure in our schools. Teachers need to be trained on LGBTI+, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex+, issues, and that includes recognising the signs of bullying and cyber-bullying, so that they may act to put a stop to individual cases.
The repercussions of cyber-bullying are serious; young and impressionable people can suffer very serious losses in confidence. More seriously, it can lead to depression and self-harm, and, tragically and regrettably, as we have heard, it has led to young people taking their lives. I welcome any efforts that would strengthen legislation in this place, or in the devolved institutions, to help tackle this abuse. I would also like to reiterate today to anyone listening to this debate who is the victim of online abuse or bullying: you are not alone, speak to someone you trust and do not hesitate to contact the police to report it.
We have a duty here to work together to tackle cyber-abuse and bullying proactively. As high-profile individuals, we have no doubt all experienced some form of it ourselves, and can no doubt empathise with all victims of this kind of abuse. We are their voices, and we must use our voices to effect real change.
I thank the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) and the hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) for securing this debate, through the Backbench Business Committee. Let me start my contribution by saying how much I value social media. As an MP, it allows me to engage directly with constituents, enabling me to promote the work I do. Social media also makes it easier for my constituents to contact me and for me to hear at first hand from my constituents about the issues that are important to them. I also know that the general public value their use of social media. It has become a staple part of our daily lives—my wife would probably say it has become far too much of a staple. Tools such as Facebook and Twitter allow people to keep in touch with one another regardless of whether they are in different corners of the globe or, sadly, just in different corners of the living room. In the UK, Facebook has 32 million users and Twitter now has 16 million users tweeting on a daily basis. The vast majority of people who use social media do so in a respectable and proper manner. They engage with other users in a friendly and cordial manner. As a politician, I can testify that the overwhelming majority of people who talk to me online, even those who disagree, do so with respect—or something close to it. However, as with a lot of things, there are always a few who ruin it for everyone else, and unfortunately social media and other online forums do have a small but significant minority who engage in abusive and poisonous behaviour.
Like every other political party, the SNP condemns all online abuse and supports any measure to ensure that those involved are held to account by the security and policing authorities. The First Minister of Scotland has addressed this issue and is one of UK politics’ best users of Twitter to communicate and engage with the electorate. She has previously said that robust political debate forms an important part of a democracy, but that debate and discussion must be conducted in a polite and appropriate manner. I think that is a message that we can all agree on. I do not accept the view that public servants are fair game to be abused and that such abuse is part and parcel of being a politician. Any abuse, no matter who is on the receiving end of it, should be condemned—that includes threats to politicians. Like many Members in this Chamber, I have had some abuse, but the cowards that troll online are usually men who reserve some of their worst abuse for female Members. These are not real men hiding behind their keyboards and their anonymous user names, but small and pathetic men whose actions can ultimately have serious and tragic repercussions.
Politicians are not the abuser’s only target. It appears that no one can escape the poison that blights the internet. I spoke in the debate during carers’ week and mentioned that a lot of carers were tweeting about their experiences of caring for a loved one. That online campaign was incredibly informative and provided an insight into the issues that carers face. However, it is shameful that even carers cannot escape the abuse from the trolls.
We need to get to the bottom of why so many people think it is okay to send abusive online messages. In 2014, 1,209 people were convicted of internet trolling under section 127 of the Communications Act 2003. Of those convicted, only 155 were jailed for sending messages or other material that were grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character. The truth is that there are far, far more people engaging in abusive activity than the 1,200 people who were convicted, let alone the 155 who served some jail time. The scale of the problem is unclear. The think-tank Demos found that 10,000 tweets aggressively attacking someone were sent from UK accounts over a three-week period.
As a father of two young girls, I am particularly concerned about the increasing incidence of children being bullied online. The rise of cyber-bullying has allowed bullies to extend their vicious behaviour beyond the classroom. There are currently no official statistics on the number of children who are bullied, but from research studies and from what children tell us, we know that bullying is an issue that affects almost all children in some way. DoSomething.org, one of the largest organisations for young people on social change, suggests that nearly 43% of children have been bullied online, with this abusive behaviour occurring on more than one occasion.
Equally worrying is that 90% of teens who witness social media bullying say that they have ignored it. Kids who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, transsexual and intersexed, who have a disability, and who are from African, Caribbean, Asian, middle eastern and other minority groups are far more likely to encounter such cyber-bullying.
We must also consider why people on the receiving end of such abusive online behaviour choose to ignore it. We simply would not accept it if we witnessed abuse in person in the street or in the classroom. We should send a message that cyber-bullying and any form of online abuse cannot be tolerated and should be reported at every opportunity.
As I mentioned earlier, the rise of the internet and social media has made it easier for women to be attacked and abused. The revenge porn helpline has received almost 4,000 calls in the past year from people receiving sexually abusive messages online. Reported cases of revenge porn—the sharing of explicit or sexual images without consent—have risen markedly, with alleged victims ranging from 11 years old to pensioners. Two thirds of the incidents involved women under the age of 30, with suspects mainly being former partners. There were eight complaints from females to every one complaint from a male. Such statistics sound all too similar to the incidence of domestic violence.
Undoubtedly, this is an extremely difficult problem to solve, but work is being done to reduce cyber-bullying. For instance, the Scottish National party Government have funded Respectme, which was mentioned earlier. Scotland’s anti-bullying service, which acts as a source of information for young people in Scotland, has created and made available publications to raise awareness on the issues of cyber-bullying. Respectme has highlighted the fact that bullying is bullying whether it takes place in the street, in the playground or online and we should treat it all with equal import.
We need to develop effective policies to tackle online bullying in all its various forms. We should send out a central message that anyone who has been a victim of online abuse should not hesitate to report it to the police immediately. I agree with the hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes) that companies such as Facebook and Twitter could and should do much more to investigate or block abusive posts. No one should have to go home from work or school and experience online bullying. As well as offering support to the victims of online bullying, we must also take serious action to deal with the perpetrators of this vicious, poisonous and, ultimately, cowardly behaviour.
My apologies, Mr Deputy Speaker, for stepping out of the Chamber, but I was involved in a school visit. I thank the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) and the hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) for securing this very important debate. I also thank all those Members who have spoken before me and whom I have been able to hear.
Technology is a central part of our lives today; it is a tool. Sadly, used maliciously, it can be turned into a weapon that can have, and indeed has had, damaging and sometimes devastating consequences for victims. As others have mentioned, Members of this House have been victims of such abuse, and some have been sufficiently frightened by the abuse that they have been afraid to go home at the weekend. Most victims do not have the benefit of the police and parliamentary support that we have here. Like all bullying, bullies tend to target people who already feel vulnerable. Members have rightly acknowledged the gaps and the need for action, legislation, police and prosecutors, and, most importantly, awareness.
I want to focus my contribution on online abuse and harassment in schools and the importance of effective and consistent school management and curriculum policies to complement the effective legislation that we also need. I am honoured to be on the Women and Equalities Committee under the chairmanship of the right hon. Member for Basingstoke. We have been addressing the issue of sexual harassment and violence in schools. Our report is not quite ready, but I am sure that my Chair will not mind if I give a little flavour of what we have experienced. We were shocked by the extent that sexual imagery, abusive sexual relationships and objectification of women have been normalised by young people. We had two sessions—one with young men and the other with young women—in which we were told about the experiences of young people of the use and misuse of technology in and around the school environment. If we do not understand and address that misogyny, homophobia, Islamophobia, racism and all the other kinds of abuse, we risk turning victims into criminals, which means that they will not get the support that they so badly need.
I wish to focus my remarks on the experience brought to me by one of my constituents, a headteacher at a successful and thriving secondary school. Recent safeguarding investigations introduced him to the shocking mobile and cyber-world in which virtually every child in his school and, he presumes, in other local schools and therefore nationally seem to be engaged for unfeasibly large proportions of their days and nights. What happened in his school started with the exchange of photos between two students who were in a consensual relationship, but it escalated. The images got out. There was blackmail and violence, and the police were involved. Criminal charges were considered. What started as a consensual relationship ended up as truly violent abuse, and it could have been prevented.
The situation raised some really important aspects of child online and mobile safety and the equalities agenda, which appear to be being ignored. The headteacher is seeking a body of work in some key areas that has cross-party and organisational support that can help schools and parents to safeguard children much more effectively.
It is right to focus on strengthening the law, but we need to look at a parallel solution if we are not to put thousands of teenagers at risk of criminal charges when education and child protection are more in order. Although tackling offenders and strengthening the law are very important, they are only a small part of what needs to be done and are not on their own a real solution. If we do not want young people to be needlessly and unfairly criminalised, elements of the law and the context of the online abuse must be thoroughly analysed before changes are made. We must focus not so much on reaction, but on prevention. The law is not always the correct tool, and it must not be used when young people are engaging in unwise activities—as so many do—which relate to the expectation and culture of a mobile and cyber environment in which appropriate adults have virtually no presence and where, too often, we leave them abandoned and to fend for themselves.
My constituent contends that a strong positive culture must dominate any community, including the online and mobile community, because when it is absent, there will never be a vacuum—a “street culture” will fill the void. Alas, he fears and he sees that this is the case with the mobile and cyber-worlds that our children spend so much of their day and night lives inhabiting. We need to take care not to end up targeting and criminalising young people who are, in fact, victims. This will require significant training and support for the police, as other Members have mentioned, and for others whose response to such crime already appears to be under-confident and very variable.
My constituent subscribes to a restorative justice approach in his school, and that might be appropriate in cases where mitigating factors are considered. He asserts that the ignored fact is that the vast majority of young people are already mobile and online victims in a largely unsupervised cyber-world. Although the internet gets considerable attention from safeguarding organisations and in training, mobile activity and mobile-based abuse are, in fact, even more rife but more neglected by us adults. Parents, teachers and other adults normally responsible for the routine safety of children are best placed to supervise and guide young people, yet they are largely absent from the potentially dangerous environment and too little is being done to address that omission.
There is an over-focus on the internet and the wrong applications, such as Facebook, because they are what we older people use and are familiar with. The mobile world and the dark web get less attention, yet they are part of most children’s experiences—perhaps the dark web to a lesser degree. There are lots of apps. I know Snapchat, but I do not use it. Hon. Members have probably never even heard of other apps unless we have asked our kids to tell us, and that does not always happen. The mobile and online culture in which our children live and grow up—the ground is established in the primary years for some of them but in early secondary for many more—is their normality.
This normalisation, with no appropriate adult presence to challenge it, is what leads to the lack of reporting of sexual and other mobile, online and cyber-abuse. We must deal with the issue that young people do not want to go to court, or they do not want perpetrators to be punished. The idea that abuse is not worth reporting is not necessarily an indictment of the criminal justice system, but it may not be considered worth reporting when it is seen as normalised.
Data from police forces and court proceedings are only a small subset of the true or possible dataset. The reality is that the relative lack of adult presence in the mobile and cyber-worlds of children, including the practitioners responsible for keeping children safe, means that conclusions drawn on available quantitative data must be received cautiously. We need to establish a different online, mobile and cyber-culture and skill-up children, parents and other adults.
Police, children’s services, health and education staff need consistent training on child exploitation and on how to support victims. In short, parents and other responsible adults just do not know how to be part of the mobile and cyber-world. Schools have a responsibility in this debate and in the remedies. Some suggestions that come from the work that our headteachers have done include every school having an equalities and safeguarding committee and updating the behaviour policy to have a strong safeguarding structure and training for parents, staff and, of course, students. Students should be engaged in this work and in policy development and roll out in an equal ratio to adults.
Heads suggest using up-to-date information and communications technology and security in the school ICT environment; ensuring staff, students and parents are clear on the law and people’s rights; and encouraging a transparent culture where children welcome parents and school staff interrogating their mobile devices as a matter of course. That is a challenge for parents, but we need to think about that in the context of an overall policy.
Heads also suggest developing clear, consistent procedures and guidance for investigating safeguarding, social media, sexual exploitation and mobile and online incidents, including the protection of staff investigating such incidents, while taking account of pupil privacy and so on; working with relevant organisations such as the police, the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre and others; and using pupil ICT champions to keep schools up to date with developments in social media and portable apps and to help inform e-safety curriculum developments.
The hon. Lady refers to the difficulty with teenagers. Does she agree that we should perhaps look as a House at whether parents should have a legal duty to be aware of what their children are doing online, in the same way as we have legal duties to ensure that our children are not exposed to other dangers?
The hon. Gentleman raises an interesting issue. As a parent of two young adults, I have always wondered why all sorts of people are required to do all sorts of things in respect of the children in their care, yet there seems to be no legal duty that a woman signs when she pops out a baby. I am sure that people far more legally qualified than I am can respond in detail to the hon. Gentleman’s interesting and pertinent question.
I have concluded my core points. We need to address online bullying and abuse with a whole raft of mixed approaches that include not only enforcement, criminal charges and policing but public policy and education policy solutions, so that victims are not criminalised.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) on securing this debate. I will not go on too long and dilute the quality of the debate. I promise to make a short speech. [Interruption.] Yes, I am sure that hon. Members will appreciate that. In another short speech—my maiden speech—I said that I would be an advocate in this place for the internet and online sector of the British economy because it creates lots of jobs. That does not mean that I am an apologist for that sector or, indeed, that I excuse some of the negative consequences that have occurred.
All the stakeholders in the internet economy and, indeed, we as legislators and all other players have an awesome responsibility to ensure that we create a safe environment for our children in particular. The internet has created an environment in which adults behave like children and children behave like adults in a way that we have never really understood before.
Many Members have commented previously on the great work being undertaken in schools in educating children about online bullying. I have seen such programmes in action in schools in my constituency, and I applaud the great work of teachers, as do many other Members.
Members have mentioned the prevalence of children having mobile phones these days. Parents often find it difficult to lock or unlock mobile phones, or to work out how to make them secure in the way that they perhaps have confidence in doing with computers. The average Brit looks at their mobile phone 100 times a day. More people would be willing give up chocolate, showers or, indeed, sex than their mobile phones.
Which are you giving up?
I will leave hon. Members with this comment: today is the first time in my entire time in Parliament when I have not looked at my mobile phone to see abuse on Twitter, Facebook or in an email. I lost my mobile phone 14 hours ago. It has been one of the most relaxing and productive days of my time in Parliament, and I highly recommend it.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) on securing this debate and outlining at the beginning the homophobic and racist abuse and the horrors of child abuse that we often see on the internet. The hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) described the many ways in which abuse can take place.
The hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) issued a stark warning that children were losing their ability to empathise which we all found striking and interesting. I was particularly happy to hear her description of her doorstep visits to trolls. For a moment, I almost felt sorry for the pathetic creatures when I imagined her turning up and remonstrating with them.
Members have made a variety of speeches describing their personal experiences. I was struck by the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Caroline Ansell) describing a victim’s terrifying experience online. Particularly moving, I thought, was my hon. Friend the Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Ms Ahmed-Sheikh) talking about her experiences of being at the receiving end of abuse from online cowards.
Today, we are all connected. We use the internet to conduct business, for entertainment and to connect with our friends through social media. Our mobile phones in our pockets ensure that we are available anytime, anywhere and that we can instantly share photos with family, friends and complete strangers. For the vast majority of people, that connectivity has enhanced our lives, but as the historian Melvin Kranzberg wrote in the first of his six laws of technology,
“Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral.”
As we have heard, online abuse is one of the negative consequences of advances in online technology.
While social media can be a platform to share a happy family photograph, it can also be a platform to share content intended to humiliate with as large an audience as possible. While an iPhone can be a helpful tool in keeping in touch with friends, it can also be an instrument through which an individual is harassed and intimidated. While Twitter can provide an opportunity for witty banter, as Members of this House well know, it can also be used by cowardly bullies hiding behind anonymity to send abuse. As the debate has shown, all political parties have sent out strong and clear messages that this behaviour must be strenuously tackled, and we must consider every possible method of dealing with it, including strengthening existing legislation.
Children and young people are often the first to embrace and adapt to changes in technology. However, that also means that they are more likely to be victims of online abuse. Much of that abuse can come from their peers, and it has been exacerbated by the use of social media and the widespread availability of smartphones with cameras. In late 2004, happy slapping became a youth craze throughout the United Kingdom—many people have forgotten about it, but it was covered widely in the tabloids at the time. It involved filming minor acts of violence, such as hitting or slapping a victim, and then circulating the videos via Bluetooth on mobile phones. However, it escalated into more serious assaults, sexual assaults and, in some instances, manslaughter. Social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter have provided further platforms for cowards. The intention of such videos is clearly to humiliate and intimidate the victim, to make them feel small and worthless, and to share their misery with the world, increasing the feeling that the whole world is against them. Rightly, these videos are roundly condemned. They are removed—sometimes—by site administrators. They are sometimes, but not often enough, investigated by the police.
Other types of abuse are more subtle and more difficult to act against. Embarrassing pictures or videos, altered photos, or photos and videos taken without an individual’s permission can be widely shared without consent. Classic bullying behaviour can manifest itself much more easily online. Victims can be ridiculed and singled out in group messages, rumours can be spread quickly and widely, and victims can be excluded from online activity. The ability to go online does not create bullying, but it helps it to go unnoticed away from the classroom and the playground.
Similarly, those who are most often targeted by conventional bullying are also targeted by online abuse. In February 2016 the UK Safer Internet Centre published a study that found that 24% of those 13 to 18-year-olds surveyed had been targeted due to their gender, sexual orientation, race, religion or disability, or due to the fact that they were transgendered.
The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful contribution. One key aspect of this abuse, which he has illustrated so well, is the ability for people on the internet to be anonymous. Is it time for the House to come to a view about whether we should allow internet anonymity to persist in this country?
It is an interesting issue: do we have an entitlement to anonymity? Perhaps we do, and perhaps we should preserve that. However, I would have to think about that. My answer is I am not sure. I was interested in the suggestion by a Labour Member that Facebook and Twitter should use technology to identify certain troll words and that using them should result automatically in the suspension of the accounts concerned. Perhaps the Minister will address those issues, among others, in his speech, and perhaps he can go away and look at them later.
One in 25 of the young people who spoke about this issue in a variety of surveys said they were singled out for abuse all or most of the time. That is a horrendous thing for young people to have to deal with. Teenagers with disabilities, and especially teenagers from African-Caribbean, Asian, middle eastern and other minority groups, were much more likely to encounter cyber-bullying.
To target cyber-bullying north of the border, the Scottish Government have funded Respectme—an anti-bullying service that acts as a source of information for young people. It has created and made available publications to raise awareness of cyber-bullying. The service works particularly well with adults involved in the lives of children and young people, giving them the practical skills and confidence to deal with children who are bullied and those who bully others. Respectme is keen to stress that, no matter where bullying takes place, it needs to be challenged, and that is a message worth repeating: anyone suffering from bullying, whether online or not, must report it and stand up to it.
Online, children and young people are also in danger of sexual abuse. A recent study by UNICEF, which was published in June 2016, suggested that eight out of 10 18-year-olds worldwide believe they or their friends are in danger of being sexually abused or taken advantage of as a result of online activity. The ability to remain anonymous online, or to take on another identity, is a contributory factor; it leads to an increased likelihood of people receiving unwanted sexual comments, unsolicited explicit material or pressure to participate in sexual activity. As we have heard from many speakers today, that problem is also experienced by adult women, with applications such as Snapchat and Tinder often providing an easy way for men to harass them.
Another increasing phenomenon is revenge porn, which involves sharing private sexual images and recordings without consent and with the intention of causing harm. The revenge porn helpline has received almost 4,000 calls in the last year alone, with cases reported involving children as young as 11 years old. Furthermore, attempts to stigmatise women are extremely common. The think-tank Demos found that 10,000 tweets were sent from UK accounts in a single three-week period aggressively attacking individuals as a “slut” or a “whore”.
Women in public life are often prime targets for online abuse. In Scotland, the three largest political parties are led by women, two of them gay. All three women have to deal routinely with sexist, misogynistic and homophobic tweets. The Scottish Conservative party leader, Ruth Davidson, has suffered horrendous homophobic abuse, and has handled it with humour, honesty and courage.
One revelation that has come out of the awful murder of Jo Cox is the amount of online abuse directed at Members of Parliament, but particularly female Members of Parliament—or, indeed, anybody who is not a heterosexual white male. Would it be appropriate for the parliamentary authorities to publish an annual report on the levels, content and types of abuse Members of Parliament receive? It comes as a surprise to most right-thinking members of the public to know that their Member of Parliament receives that kind of material.
That is an absolutely excellent idea. One of the great things about this debate is that people have been able to share their experiences. I suspect that many Members—especially some of the men—are quite surprised to discover just how widespread the problem is, so that would be an excellent thing for the House to do.
In many ways, the online world has enhanced our democracy by allowing people to interact with politicians in a way they could not before. Robust political debate is part of our public life, and we must cherish it, even when it uses language we might not personally use. What cannot be tolerated, however, is people debasing political debate with threats of violence, insults and abuse based on misogyny, homophobia, sexism and racism.
Opposition to online abuse is something that unites all our political parties. However, it is not just politicians who suffer such online abuse when they are famous. High-profile television personalities, journalists, academics, actors and sports people are all subject to abuse, whether it is petty and crude or threatening and vicious.
Online, many people seem to lose a sense of themselves and say things that they would never dream of saying in person. Quite often when I get abuse, I make a point of writing to people to ask whether they can imagine saying such things to me in real life. Of course they cannot imagine it, so why on earth do they feel free to say it simply because it is online? However, hiding behind a pseudonym and a cartoon profile picture does not make the abuse any less real. We have a duty of care as politicians, and it is vital that we send out a strong message that online abuse is wrong always.
One clear message from this debate is that, as we have heard repeatedly, Twitter and Facebook are hopelessly inadequate when it comes to their response to online, and sometimes very violent, bullying. It seems that the House, across both sides and all parties, wants the Minister to tackle Facebook and Twitter on our behalf and, much more importantly, on behalf of all our constituents. I look forward to hearing what he has to say on the matter.
I, too, thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting this important debate. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) and the hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) on securing it. The contributions have been characterised by reasonable, well-informed arguments that reflect the consensus around the House and a desire for a constructive improvement in the situation that many of our constituents, and we as Members of Parliament, face.
I may have mentioned it in the past but before entering this House I spent many years as an engineer, building the networks that eventually formed the internet. I did that because I see technology as democratising and enabling, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Gill Furniss) also emphasised: technology as something that builds bridges and connects people rather than something that bullies and snoops on people. I spend a lot of time in this House and outside it talking about the positive benefits that technology, and particularly the internet, can bring if harnessed properly. For most of us, the internet is a window on the world. It is a place to learn about what is happening, to keep in touch with friends or make new ones, to buy something, to find a new job, to study or to play games. However, the increasing presence of online abuse means that, all too often, the internet is a place where people do not feel safe. As my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury) said, technology is a tool that can be turned into a weapon.
As we become ever more connected, there are fewer safe spaces from bullying and harassment. The hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire reminded us of some of the horrifying statistics on cyber-bullying. One third of children have been a victim, a quarter have come across racist or sexist messages online and, according to the Safer Internet Centre, four in five teenagers saw or heard online hate in 2015; that is 80% of our children. The hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Ms Ahmed-Sheikh) emphasised that online porn is available that targets children as young as 11, and the hon. Member for North West Hampshire (Kit Malthouse) suggested that we are sleep-walking into a mental health epidemic because of the impact of bullying and online hate on our young people.
Citizens in this country enjoy the right to walk down the street without being attacked or harassed. When that happens, the police act. Digital citizens should enjoy the same rights online. As the hon. Member for South Ribble (Seema Kennedy) said, we need to protect our digital citizens. In his short but powerful contribution, the hon. Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston) said that we should focus on our duty to protect young people. To coin a phrase, digital citizens deserve digital rights.
It is the Government’s primary responsibility to keep their citizens safe, but they are failing to do that for citizens online. This is not a tech issue. As the right hon. Member for Basingstoke emphasised, it is about standards, interoperability, protocols, control, industry co-operation, self-regulation and, if necessary, legislation. We cannot just look at what we have now and try to patch over the problems. As well as the Government, internet companies also have a responsibility to keep the internet safe. I welcome the fact that the big internet firms are beginning to take that responsibility seriously, particularly when it comes to children. However, in my view, and in the view of many on both sides of the House, they have been too slow and are still not doing enough. It was great news that Twitter decided to add a button to report abuse, for example, but why on earth did it take seven years to think of it?
It is important that we get the principles right, rather than just trying to keep up with the latest technology, putting regulatory sticking plasters over whatever the latest innovation is. We cannot keep having this battle with every new internet giant or ubiquitous application.
As a woman engineer in a predominantly male industry, and particularly when I worked for Ofcom, the communications regulator, I remember the outrage voiced by many in the tech sector when asked simply to consider taking responsibility for content. Their main accusation was of undermining freedom of speech, as my hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes) highlighted. They also called parents irresponsible if their children found porn online, and accused women in particular of being over-sensitive when we objected to violent images of rape or to misogynist threats. As my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Dr Blackman-Woods) reminded us, it is women who are often victims of online hate. The hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) has a very robust approach to challenging online abuse, but unfortunately we cannot all emulate that.
I remind the industry players of the period when many championed what I would call a wild west approach to online safety. I do not want to undermine the work that they are doing now, and which I will come to, but to highlight that some of the lack of trust in the internet and the reluctance of many to go online can be traced to those early mistakes, when the right support and protection for consumers was not put in place. We now face a new frontier in citizen data control, and many of the same industry players—Facebook, Twitter, Google and so on—are still on the back foot on this. We need to give citizens and consumers control of their data.
On the subject of online outrage, the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) highlighted the Gamergate scandal. A recent period of online vilification came when I had the audacity to suggest that misogyny in games could perhaps be signposted; not necessarily regulated or eliminated, but simply signposted. That caused outrage among many in the industry, who still do not recognise the importance of social responsibility when it comes to the internet.
As has been said, there are many very bright people in this sector. If they can build algorithms to snoop on our email or phonebook, or to tell us who to be friends with or what washing machine to buy, they should be able to crack down more effectively on abuse and harassment and put me in control of my own data. The new platforms need to understand that. Perhaps it is not seen as a major priority because it does not come with a revenue stream attached, but safeguarding people should always be the No. 1 priority. That is not only because it is the right thing to do, but because if we allow the internet to become a place where only those who shout the loudest or who use the most appalling abuse can have a voice, people will turn away from using it. As the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) said, those involved in such abuse must be held to account.
I am particularly pleased that the motion makes reference to training and education for the police and for young people. I welcome the recent Stand Up to Bullying Day, held on 5 July and organised by the Diana Award, which seeks to build digital resilience. I also welcome the work done by many third sector organisations. This is not a problem that will take care of itself without significant and sustained action from industry and Government.
I also welcome the Reclaim the Internet campaign on which many across the House, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), are working. I am sure that my right hon. Friend looked to the Digital Economy Bill to provide some appropriate responses to online abuse, but I am afraid that we did not see any. I hope the Minister will be delighted to learn that Labour Members intend to make significant improvements to the Bill. A successful digital economy requires its citizens and consumers to be protected and empowered. Governments and platforms need to use technology to support citizens, instead of leaving the haters to attack them.
I am grateful to have the chance to speak. I have no idea how long I have got at the Dispatch Box, but I will keep going until you indicate otherwise, Mr Deputy Speaker.
I can help the Minister by saying that if he works on the basis of around 10 minutes, I think we will all be happy.
Let us go for the 10-minute special, then.
I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) for calling this important debate. I was lucky enough to work with her when she was Secretary of State. She took on two important issues at that time: Leveson and the issue of press regulation, and equal marriage. She handled both with aplomb, and she has since shown the House how one transitions from such a position to a new role. She has taken a huge and leading role in the House on women and equalities issues. She has certainly pushed forward the important agenda of online abuse, so it is no surprise at all to find her leading this debate and setting out for the Government some very clear approaches and suggestions, which it behoves us to take seriously.
It is worth recalling that when the matter has been raised in the House—for example, when my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Claire Perry) first raised the question of children’s access to adult content online—it has resulted in action. Debates in this House may sometimes appear to be simply an exchange of views between Government and Members of the House, but, because this agenda is so fast moving, the House has a great deal of influence on the direction of Government policy. Without wishing to single out individuals too much, I have to say that my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke has pushed the matter forward, not least the change in legislation on revenge pornography last year.
It would be remiss of me to go through every speech that has been made. Some 18 or 19 hon. Members have made contributions, all of which have been serious and worth while. Because this was a lengthy and detailed debate, I appreciated the odd moment of light-heartedness, not least when my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) told us that she responds to online abuse with a picture of a kitten. That particularly appealed to me, because I have a picture, which is now well known, of a kitten sitting on my shoulder when I visited Battersea Dogs and Cats Home. I will use that in future to respond to my online trolls.
I was also amused when my right hon. Friend the hon. Member for North West Hampshire (Kit Malthouse) complained that teenagers now live in a world in which they are surrounded by perfect people who are wonderful to look at. I wondered why he thought that that was a problem when we all exist in the perfect world of the Palace of Westminster, where people are charming and lovely, as we have particularly found during the last week or so.
Four clear issues emerged from the debate. Let me briefly pause to put them in context. The Government are, quite rightly, committed to an open internet. When I attend international forums, I find that it is very important that the UK, along with our allies, is committed to what we call the multi-stakeholder approach for internet governance. That involves civic society, business and Governments working together to keep the internet open and free. Authoritarian-inclined regimes would like to regulate the internet, restrict freedom of speech and clamp down on innovation. The Government of this country do, however, regard things that are illegal and wrong offline to be illegal and wrong online. Hon. Members have made the point that some people seem to believe that the rules of behaviour and the legal rules that we all live by in the physical world somehow do not apply on the internet. That is absolutely not the case.
The UK has led the way in approaching the issue from a perspective of self-regulation rather than legislation. Self-regulation works because it brings about partnerships and helps us to move forward more quickly. A good example is the creation of the Internet Watch Foundation, which was the first charity to focus on dealing with images of child sexual abuse. It is a model that has been copied around the world, and it became incredibly important in driving forward the recent work with search engines, such as Google, to make searching for and discovering images of child abuse online much, much more difficult. We have worked with the Internet Watch Foundation to ensure that internet service providers had the funding to increase their capacity, and we have worked with technology providers on the use of technology that enables images to be matched and traced, and that makes it easier to catch and trace perpetrators.
Similarly, by working with industry we were able to secure family-friendly filters; the default-on option means that people who log on must actively disable the filters that prevent harmful content from reaching, for example, young people. We have also worked with industry on an important and generously funded campaign, “Internet Matters”. The previous Labour Government set up the UK Council for Child Internet safety, which brings together 200 stakeholders who work on these issues. It has an important effect on driving forward policy. We continue to make progress on matters such as increasing police capability, the creation of the first Minister for Internet Safety and Security—my colleague Baroness Joanna Shields—and, with the Digital Economy Bill, the introduction of legislation to secure age verification for adult content.
As I have said, four clear issues that the Government should take forward emerged from the debate. First, although there was welcome praise for the Essex and Durham constabularies, there was an absolute recognition of the need to skill up the police force. We have the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre and different arrangements in the national police service, but for cybercrime in general—it is often financial crime—and this kind of crime in particular, it should be possible to create specialist units with national capability.
The police should also think very hard about the people they recruit. There is no need for them to recruit only for conventional police training—people who can walk the beat or perform the traditional roles of policing; there is every opportunity to recruit people with specialist skills that may not be transferable to the rest of the police service but who could be recruited relatively quickly to do this work.
There was a clear call from the House for legislative clarity, both clarity in defining online abuse and clarity about the myriad different Acts and statutes that come to bear in this area. The new Government under the new Prime Minister will want to make clarifying and consolidating that legislation a priority. That was a clear call from the House that must be taken forward.
The issue of anonymity was raised, with the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (John Nicolson) debating whether it should come under our consideration. I would not want to legislate to remove anonymity. Whether to allow anonymous users should be a matter for individual platforms, just as I would not require the Royal Mail to refuse to handle any letter that had been sent anonymously. That kind of interference would be unjustified,
That point leads me on to the role of platforms. It is interesting to consider that in the online world we now suddenly have companies that in many respects are bigger and more influential than many nation states—Facebook has a population of 1.2 billion, and Twitter has a population of 300 million—yet to a certain extent are left to their own devices to create their own rules, society and regulation, without the role of Government or of civic society as a whole being taken into account. Platforms must work with Governments and civic society to create rules. I support my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke in her call for something I have been keen to make progress on, namely a clear code of conduct within the UK that clarifies what constitutes online abuse, and, even more importantly for users, gives clarity on the rapid remedies available to people who are abused in this way. We have heard some really horrific examples, but of course we all know of those examples because we see them day in, day out, either on the news or because we ourselves or our friends are being attacked.
Will the Minister address the specific point raised by a number of Members about whether there should be legislation to place specific duties—in particular, a duty on child protection—on some of the very large companies that he mentioned? There was a general theme in contributions from across the House that we would either like existing legislation to be consolidated in one Bill that we could then look at in the round or we would like measures on this issue to be brought forward in the Digital Economy Bill. Is any of that likely to happen?
I should have said earlier that the views of my hon. Friend need to be taken very seriously. He has very serious experience from his time as deputy mayor for policing in London. I listen to him very seriously indeed. How can I put this? I want to get the Digital Economy Bill through the House. It has a specific focus, so I would be cautious about inviting him or any other Member to load additional responsibilities on to it, particularly on issues that need careful thought and planning. But I would certainly welcome discussions with him and would never rule out appropriate regulation to push the responsibility for some of the appalling abuse that we see day in, day out on to social media. It is not enough—this also applies to issues such as intellectual property and the online theft of music and film—to view platforms as passive vehicles. They are extremely wealthy companies that rely on a large number of users to generate the advertising that creates their shareholders’ wealth. There needs to be partnership, and I do not rule out regulation.
Having said that, given a post-Brexit situation in which we are keen to encourage inward investment, I do not want to frighten the horses of companies that provide a great deal of direct and indirect employment in the UK. We need to work with the companies, and we need clear guidelines on, and definitions of, online abuse. Even more importantly, we need very quick reactions, so that all of us as constituency MPs do not have to sit in surgeries with people who are clearly utterly distressed because of online material—their lives are sometimes in absolute pieces—and cannot get any adequate response from the platform hosting it.
This has been an extremely helpful and useful debate, and I look forward to moving seamlessly into the next debate, which I am also responding to.
I thank Members for supporting this debate with such superb contributions. I also thank the Minister, who has sat in his place listening throughout. The debate has demonstrated the strength of feeling that he has seen among Members across the House.
The UK led the way in tackling some of the early challenges online, working with European and US partners to put in place a global approach to outlawing child abuse images. We also passed some of the first legislation in the world to make it a crime to post revenge pornography. But we are now at real risk of falling behind. It is clear from the debate that there is universal condemnation of online abuse, so why have we not seen this Government present laws in Parliament to update our position?
There is cross-party support for specific laws to tackle online abuse and to consider specific duties on the police, schools, social network platforms, search engines and internet providers—duties that will show zero tolerance to online abuse. I must wholeheartedly disagree with my very great friend the Minister on anonymity. We have to lift the veil of anonymity in this country to make sure that people are responsible for what they say. We do it in every other part of our lives, so why not online?
The Minister is fortunate that the Digital Economy Bill has already been introduced to the House; it is a means of making the sort of changes that have been called for by Members of all parties here today. Those changes need to be part of a coherent cross-Government strategy. He should take Members’ concerns back to his Department and call for action now.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House notes the increasing number of cases where the internet, social media and mobile phone technology are used to bully, harass, intimidate and humiliate individuals including children and vulnerable adults; calls on the Government to ensure that clear legislation is in place that recognises the true impact and nature of online abuse, as distinct to offline abuse; and further calls on the Government to put in place appropriate legal and criminal sanctions, police training, guidance to the CPS and education for young people relating to such abuse.