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Social Media Platforms: Harmful Content

Volume 655: debated on Thursday 7 March 2019

More needs to be done to tackle harmful online content and to make it clear that social media platforms have responsibilities to their users. Our forthcoming White Paper will set out those responsibilities, how they should be met and what should happen if they are not.

On this issue, the Health Secretary said in January:

“It would be far better to do it in concert with the social media companies, but if we think…that they’re refusing to do so, then we can and we must legislate.”

What legislation is the Culture Secretary planning, and will he confirm whether this includes plans for an independent social media regulator?

I agree with the Health Secretary, and I have made it clear on a number of occasions that I believe the era of self-regulation must come to an end in this space. But the hon. Gentleman will understand that this is not just a complex matter, but a subject on which it is important to put forward our proposals in the round. We will do that in the White Paper that he will see shortly, and in that he will see what proposals we make for further legislation.

The Select Committee on Science and Technology heard chilling evidence about the impact that social media can have on young people’s mental health. Does the Secretary of State agree with the Committee’s recommendation that social media companies should have a duty of care towards young people, and if so, how does he intend to legislate for it and by when? If he does not agree, what other route does he suggest taking?

The Science and Technology Committee report to which my hon. Friend refers makes an important and worthwhile contribution to this debate, and I am grateful to her and her colleagues for it. Again, I hope she will forgive me if I do not set out at this Dispatch Box now precisely what the White Paper will say, but perhaps I can reassure her by saying that we are strongly considering a duty of care as part of the proposals we seek to make, and we believe it is important that responsibilities are taken seriously to protect not only young people but everyone from the harms that the internet may provide.

The Secretary of State mentions the duty of care applying to platforms. Is he aware that there are gaming platforms similar to social media platforms which are circulating material such as the rather horribly named “Rape Day” game, and will he extend any legislation he is planning for social media to game platforms?

I believe it is not what a company calls itself that matters, but what it does. What we will seek to do in the White Paper and anything that follows it is make sure that we can tackle the harms we define as in scope of that White Paper, wherever they may lie on the internet. I understand that the game the hon. Lady mentions has now been withdrawn; quite right too—I think all of us would have been horrified had any other course been taken.

Does the Secretary of State agree with the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee report that if social media platforms host harmful contact and fail to act against it, they should have liability for it?

Again, my hon. Friend will have to wait for the detail of the White Paper, but I have made it, I hope, very clear, and am happy to make it clear again, that I believe that social media companies have responsibilities in this space. They should take those responsibilities seriously, and if they do not there should be consequences.

Following on from the question from the hon. Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire) from the Labour Benches about “Rape Day”, the game was created by developer Desk Plant. For the benefit of the Secretary of State, those in the Chamber and those watching, I should say that the game enables players to

“verbally harass, kill, and rape women”,

and its contents include

“violence, sexual assault, non-consensual sex, obscene language, necrophilia, and incest.”

A game of this nature has no place in our society. I am glad it has been pulled by gaming site Steam, but its statement was woeful; it did not even accept or acknowledge the risk that it could pose. At a time when one in five women will experience sexual violence in their lives, and in the week when International Women’s Day falls, will the Secretary of State work with me and others to launch a review of how this game even got to the development and approval stage and make sure that it appears on no other platforms?

Yes. The hon. Lady makes a good point, and I think that we should ask questions about this. It is profoundly unacceptable that material such as this should be available to young people, and older people, and we must worry about the sense it creates of proper relationships and the way in which these types of activity should be regarded by any fundamentally decent society. Of course, we must understand exactly how it has got to this point in relation to this game. As I have said, I welcome the fact that the game has been withdrawn. I think we would all have been having a very different conversation this morning if it had not been.

Every major social media platform other than YouTube has taken down Stephen Yaxley-Lennon’s profile because of his hateful conduct. Late on Monday night, Yaxley-Lennon turned up at a journalist’s home and banged on the doors and windows demanding to be let in. After being escorted away by the police, he returned at 5 am and continued his intimidation. The incident was live-streamed. He later warned journalists in a YouTube video to expect a “knock on the door”. Does the Secretary of State think it is right that YouTube and its parent company Alphabet are continuing to give this man a platform?

In this House, we all believe in freedom of speech, but we also believe that that freedom of speech has limits, and that when people seek to intimidate others, and potentially to break the law—the description that the hon. Gentleman has given the House this morning is potentially a description of criminal behaviour—it is unacceptable. It is beyond the reach of the type of freedom of speech that we believe should be protected. As I have said, all internet companies and all platforms for this kind of speech need to take their responsibilities seriously, and I hope that YouTube will consider carefully what the hon. Gentleman and I have said, and reconsider its judgment.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. Those who have expressed their opinion online will know that doing so can unleash a torrent of abuse designed to make them wonder whether they should speak out at all. This week we have heard of female colleagues having panic buttons installed in their homes because of the death and rape threats they have received. This culture of abuse, intimidation and threats undermines our democracy and the principles of free speech. Will the Secretary of State consider, and even guarantee, that the online harms White Paper will introduce measures to prevent hate figures, extremists and their followers from turning the online world into a cesspit of hate?

I will of course consider what the hon. Gentleman has said, but we must ensure that we preserve our ability, online as everywhere else, to debate and discuss issues that are sometimes uncomfortable and certainly controversial. I repeat, however, that no freedom of speech can survive in this country if we do not protect people’s ability to feel free to say what they think, free of intimidation and free of the threat of violence. Those who engage in intimidation or threats of violence should not find succour online or anywhere else.