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Social Media Platforms and Hate Speech

Volume 653: debated on Thursday 31 January 2019

3. What steps the Government are taking to ensure that social media platform providers identify and remove online hate speech. (908928)

7. What steps the Government are taking to ensure that social media platform providers identify and remove online hate speech. (908932)

In the digital charter we set out our ambition for everyone to access the opportunities of the internet and to feel safe in doing so. Our forthcoming White Paper will set out measures to ensure platforms take adequate steps to protect their users from online abuse, including hate speech, and as part of the Government’s internet safety strategy we have asked the Law Commission to conduct a review of the current law around abusive and offensive online communications.

May I add my thoughts and those of my constituents and of everybody on this side of the House and across these Benches to the sympathies and condolences to the family of Molly Russell for that tragic incident?

I hear the Minister’s words and look forward to the forthcoming report, but I am afraid this just seems like too little too late. Does he not agree with the Science and Technology Committee, which has published a report today, that an existing regulator such as Ofcom could start work on a harm reduction strategy as soon as October, as I already put forward in a private Member’s Bill two years ago? This is urgent.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady and am familiar with her private Member’s Bill and the report to which she refers; both are extremely valuable additions to this consideration. I am sure she will understand, however, that the most important thing we can do for the family of Molly Russell and other young people and their families who are concerned about this issue is make sure that our response is effective and properly thought through and will work in the long term. It is no good getting good headlines for a day or two and then finding that the structures we set up have holes in them that mean they cannot deliver. What that means is that the Government are taking time to get this right. It is also worth pointing out that we are the first country that will do this; if we produce a holistic approach to online harms and internet regulation, we will be the first country to do it. We should be proud of that, but we should make sure we get it right. We will do it and the hon. Lady will see the White Paper soon, but it needs to be got right.

On 8 January the Petitions Committee produced its report on its inquiry into internet trolling of people with disabilities. Will the Minister commit to our recommendation to ensure that the internet is no more dangerous for disabled people than for everyone else, and will he include people with disabilities in his consultation?

The answer to the last question is yes, and the hon. Lady is right to highlight again this report and the issues that surround the abuse that can be directed to disabled people. This is absolutely fundamental. What we must get across, not just in regulatory structures and Government action but in what we all say, is that there is no special rule that applies to the online world that means people can engage in abuse or behaviour that would be unacceptable in any other forum. That is not the case, and we all have to say it with clarity.

Nick Clegg seems to have landed on his feet since leaving this place and is now the government affairs officer or director or vice-president of Facebook, earning a million or two I understand—

A bit more, I am told by a colleague sitting in front of me. Nick Clegg seemed startled at the idea that Facebook has any responsibility in this area when asked about it on television recently. Does my right hon. and learned Friend have any plans to speak with Mr Clegg about this—or is it Sir Nick? [Interruption.] Sir Nick.

I of course would wish to say that I am sure that my hon. Friend is being unfair to our former colleague, but I can tell him that I spoke to Sir Nick last week and I am happy to tell the House what I told him, which is that when the White Paper is published he and everyone else, including Facebook, will see that the Government’s intent is to set out with clarity what the responsibilities of online companies like Facebook are, how they should meet those responsibilities and what will happen to them if they do not.

I agree with the Secretary of State that the White Paper should provide remedies for dealing with hate speech; the real test will be whether it protects our children. Last week, we heard of the tragic case of a young girl taking her own life after being exposed to harmful material about depression and suicide online. This week, we have learned that online bullying has doubled. If I got to talk to Nick Clegg, I would tell him that, rather than focusing on protecting children, Facebook and others are focused on profiting from children. This morning, the Science and Technology Committee has called for a legal duty of care on social media companies, and we support that important report. Will the Secretary of State confirm that he supports that call, and will he state explicitly that it has to be underpinned and enforced by a regulator that has teeth?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for what he says about Molly Russell and others who have been affected. As he knows, she is sadly not the first of these cases and she is unlikely to be the last. I should like to take this opportunity to pay tribute also to her father, who I am sure the whole House would agree has not only dealt with his loss with immense dignity but sought to ensure that that loss was not in vain and that people will make the changes that we all agree are necessary.

On the point about a duty of care, the hon. Gentleman knows, because we have discussed it, that this is something we are considering carefully. We are also keen to ensure that whatever structures the White Paper sets up can be enforced. Although it is right to point out that some social media companies have done some things in this space that we should applaud, it is clear that there has been nowhere near enough activity yet, and it would be wrong to assume that this House or this Government can sit back and allow the social media companies to do this voluntarily, so there will be further action, and the hon. Gentleman will see it set out in the White Paper. I look forward to his comments and the House’s reassurance on this; we will want to hear what everyone in the House and beyond has to say. As I said earlier, this is ground-breaking stuff and the UK should be proud to be able to do it first, but we must do it right. That means that the views, opinions, knowledge and expertise of many more must be included in the process.

Order. Perhaps we can get through the remaining questions without replies that take a minute and a half. Hopeless! Sorry, but hopeless!