Monday 28 February 2022
[Sir Roger Gale in the Chair]
[Relevant documents: Second Report of the Petitions Committee, Tackling Online Abuse, HC 766; Report of the Joint Committee on the Draft Online Safety Bill, Draft Online Safety Bill, HC 609; and the Eighth Report of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, The Draft Online Safety Bill and the legal but harmful debate, HC 1039.]
I remind Members to observe social distancing and to wear masks as appropriate, please.
Before I call the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North to move the motion, I wish to make a short statement about the sub judice measures. There are issues pertinent to the debate that may be relevant to specific cases. I remind Members that, under the terms of the House’s sub judice resolution, no reference should be made to legal proceedings that are currently live before UK courts. For clarification, that applies to coroners’ courts as well as to law courts.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petitions 272087 and 575833, relating to online abuse.
Thank you for chairing this incredibly important and timely debate, Sir Roger. The way that we view social media in this country has changed dramatically in the 12 years that I have been in Parliament. In the early days, people saw it as a force for good, whether they were activists using Twitter and Facebook to organise when the Arab spring began in 2011 or just groups of likeminded people sharing photos of their cats and clips from their favourite video games. Many people took the anonymity it offered to be an unqualified positive, allowing people to share deeply personal things and be themselves in a way that, perhaps, they felt they could not be in the real world. All that potential is still there.
Social media has been an invaluable tool in keeping us connected with friends and family during these incredibly challenging two years, but the dark side of social media has also become depressingly familiar to us all. We now worry about what exactly these giant corporations have been doing with our personal information. We read research describing echo chambers that fuel political polarisation and we see the unfolding mental health impact, particularly on young girls, of the heavily edited celebrity images that always seem to be just one or two swipes away.
As the Putin regime’s disastrous invasion of Ukraine proceeds, Ukrainians do not just face the Russian troops who have entered their country. Moscow has, predictably, stepped up its misinformation campaigns on social media, with the intention of sowing confusion and undermining Ukrainian morale. Meanwhile, the ease of creating, editing and sharing videos that appear to document events has left many uncertain what to believe or where to turn for reliable information. The Ukrainian people are seeing their worst nightmare unfold in a tragic, bloody war that they did not want. Before I make my main comments, I am sure I speak for us all here in saying that our thoughts, our solidary and our resolve are with Ukraine today. I know that many Members wanted to be in this important debate, but events and issues in the main Chamber have rather taken over.
What prompted the Petitions Committee inquiry into online abuse and the report we are debating is the growing concern expressed by petitioners about the abuse that people receive on social media platforms and the painfully slow progress in making online spaces less toxic. The scale of public concern is shown by the popularity of the e-petitions that our Committee has received on this subject in recent years, particularly the petitions created by television personalities Bobby Norris and Katie Price.
Bobby, who is sitting in the Public Gallery, is a powerful advocate and has started two petitions on this issue. The first called for the online homophobia of which he has been a target to be made a specific criminal offence. The second, which prompted our inquiry, was created in September 2019 and called on the Government to require online trolls to be blocked from accessing social media platforms via their IP addresses. It received over 133,000 signatures before closing early due to the 2019 general election.
Members will also be aware that Katie Price has spoken movingly about the vile abuse to which her son Harvey has been subjected. She and her mum Amy told the Committee that platforms fail to take down racist and anti-disability abuse aimed at Harvey and continue to respond poorly to complaints and reports about abusive posts. Katie’s petition was created in March 2021 and called on the Government to require social media users to link their accounts to a verified form of ID, so that abusive users can be more easily identified and prosecuted. The petition said:
“We have experienced the worst kind of abuse towards my disabled son and want to make sure that no one can hide behind their crime.”
It received almost 700,000 signatures by the time it closed in September 2021, with more than 500,000 coming in the weeks after the deplorable racist abuse aimed at England footballers last summer.
The inquiry that we have just concluded took place in the context of the Government’s draft Online Safety Bill. There is not time for me to talk through the Bill in detail today, but I know it will be the subject of intense scrutiny and debate in the coming months, and it is expected to impose new legal requirements on social media and other online platforms, including any platform that enables UK users to post content such as comments, images or videos, or to talk to others via messaging or forums online. I look forward to hearing the Government’s comments on that, although I appreciate that we await the publication of the Bill.
Online abuse is not something that just affects people in the public eye; it is something that most of us have at least witnessed, if not been subjected to ourselves. Ofcom’s pilot online harms survey in 2020-21 found that over a four-week period, 13% of respondents had experienced trolling, 10% offensive or upsetting language, and 9% hate speech or threats of violence. It is not an unfortunate side-effect of social media that victims can just shrug off. Although the abuse takes place online, we know that it can have a significant and devastating impact on the lives of victims offline. Glitch, which we spoke to as part of our inquiry, collated testimonies of online abuse as part of its report, “The Ripple Effect: Covid-19 and the Epidemic of Online Abuse”. One woman said:
“I shared a post on the rise in domestic abuse during lockdown and received dozens of misogynistic messages telling me I deserved to be abused, calling me a liar and a feminazi. My scariest experience, however, was when I shared a photograph of my young son and me. It was picked up by someone I assume to be on the far right, who retweeted it. Subsequently, throughout the day I received dozens of racist messages and threats directed at my son, at his father, and at me. It was terrifying.”
Sadly, distressing accounts of fear, isolation, difficulty sleeping, anxiety and depression are alarmingly familiar for people who are targeted for online abuse and harassment. However, the abuse is not directed equally, and the online world does not stand apart from real-world inequalities. Our inquiry found that women, disabled people, those from lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities, and people from ethnic minority backgrounds are not only disproportionately targeted for abuse; often it is their very identities that are attached. International research conducted by the Pew Research Centre found that 70% of lesbian, gay and bisexual adults have encountered online harassment, compared with about 40% of straight adults.
We heard not only that incidents of antisemitic abuse have increased, but that Jewish women are disproportionately singled out for abuse. Similarly, although women are generally subjected to more online bullying than men are, ethnicity further influences a woman’s vulnerability. Amnesty International’s research suggests that black women are around 84% more likely than white women to be abused online. In this way, online abuse can reflect and amplify the inequalities that exist offline. It also reinforces marginalisation, discouraging the participation of such communities in online spaces. Demos, which we spoke to as part of our inquiry, catalogued the effect of misogynistic abuse on women’s mental health as part of its 2021 report, “Silence, Woman”. Many women quoted in the report talked of wanting to stop their social media presence altogether and leave activities that they otherwise enjoy. One said:
“At the moment, it makes me want to quit everything I do online.”
“I can’t even look at social media because I’m so scared that I’ll see more sexism. It’s really affecting my mental health.”
It is essential that any measures to tackle online abuse also recognise and respond to inequalities in the volume and severity of that abuse. Therefore, our report makes several recommendations to Government. First, we recommend that a statutory duty be placed on the Government to consult with civil society organisations representing communities most affected by online harassment. These organisations best understand the needs of victims, and such consultation will ensure that legislation is truly effective in tackling online harms. Their involvement is an important counterbalance to the lobbying efforts of social media companies.
Secondly, we believe that the draft Online Safety Bill should align with protections already established in the Equality Act 2010 and hate crime laws, and should include abuse based on protected characteristics as priority harmful content. It should list hate crime and violence against women and girls offences as specific relevant offences within the scope of the Bill’s illegal content safety duties and specify the offences covered under those headings.
Finally, platforms should be required in their risk assessments to consider the differential risks faced by certain groups of users. Those requirements should be made explicit in the risk assessment duties set out in the draft Online Safety Bill. The evidence is clear: if someone is female, from an ethnic minority or from the LGBT community, they are much more likely to be abused online. Any legislation that assumes online abuse affects everybody equally, separate from real-world inequalities, does not address the problem. For the draft Online Safety Bill to be effective, it must require platforms to assess the vulnerability of certain communities online and tackle the unequal character of online abuse.
The related issues of online anonymity and identification of users also emerged as important and controversial issues, not only in our inquiry and the petitions that prompted it, but in the wider public and policy discussion about online abuse. The evidence we heard on the role of anonymity in facilitating abuse was mixed. Danny Stone of the Antisemitism Policy Trust, with whom I have worked closely as chair of the all-party parliamentary group against antisemitism, told us that the ability to post anonymously enables abusive behaviour and pointed to research demonstrating disinhibition effects from anonymity that can lead to increased hateful behaviour. Danny cited a figure suggesting that 40% of online antisemitic incidents over the course of a month originated from anonymous accounts. Nancy Kelley from Stonewall and Stephen Kinsella from Clean Up The Internet also argued that anonymity should be seen as a factor that increases the risk of users posting abuse and other harmful content.
However, other witnesses took different views, arguing that evidence of a causal link between anonymity and abusive behaviour is unclear. Chara Bakalis from Oxford Brookes University argued that
“focusing so much on anonymity and trying to make people say who they are online”
risks misconstruing the problem as a question of individual behaviour, rather than the overall toxicity of online spaces. We also heard that the ability to post anonymously can be important for vulnerable users. Ruth Smeeth from Index on Censorship told us how valuable it is for victims of domestic abuse to be able to share their stories without fear of being identified, and Ellen Judson from Demos warned that there is no way to reduce anonymity in a way that only hurts abusers.
Tackling the abuse itself, whether or not it comes from anonymous users, should therefore be the focus of efforts to resolve this problem. Allowing users to post anonymously always entails a risk. We recommend that online platforms should be required to specifically evaluate the links between anonymity and abusive content on their platforms, in order to consider what steps should be taken in response to it.
A related question is whether users should be required to identify themselves if they want to use social media, as a way of preventing online abuse. On Friday, the Government announced that the draft Online Safety Bill would require the largest social media companies to allow users to verify their identities on a voluntary basis, and users will therefore have the option to block other users who choose not to verify their identity. This is a positive forward, giving users control over who they interact with and what they see online.
However, that would not be a silver bullet and should not be presented as such. It is an extra layer of protection, but it should not be the main focus for tackling online abuse. It absolutely does not absolve social media companies of their responsibility to make online spaces less toxic, which must be our focus, nor is it without risks. The Committee heard counter-arguments about users having to choose to use the option to block unverified users, which could mean that domestic abuse victims and other vulnerable users might be less likely to want to verify themselves, and therefore their voices will not be heard by other users. When Ofcom draws up its guidance, it must therefore offer ways to verify identity that are as robust but as inclusive as possible.
Bobby Norris’s petition argues that it is “far too easy” for social media users who have been banned to simply create a new account and continue the abuse. Katie Price and her mum Amy also raised the issue of banned users who seemingly have no problem returning and behaving in the same appalling way. The major social media platforms told us that they already have rules against previously banned users returning, as well as the tools and data to identify users and prevent them from starting new accounts. However, the evidence that we heard does not support that.
Our inquiry found that preventing the return of abusive banned users is not a priority for social media companies, and some users are taking advantage of the lax enforcement of bans to continue abusing their victims. That is a significant failing, and platforms must be held accountable for it. Robust measures must be put in place to require social media platforms to demonstrate that they can identify previously banned users when they try to create new accounts and must discourage—or, even better, prevent—unstable accounts from posting abusive content.
Where a platform’s rules prohibit users from returning to the platform, they should be able to show that they are adequately enforcing those rules. The regulations must have teeth, so we also recommend that Ofcom should have the power to issue fines or take other enforcement action if a platform cannot demonstrate that.
We also took evidence from the Law Commission, which has recommended the creation of two new offences covering online communications. The proposed introduction of a harm-based offence would criminalise communications
“likely to cause harm to a likely audience”,
with harm defined as
“psychological harm, amounting at least to serious distress”.
An additional new offence covering threatening communications would criminalise communications that convey
“a threat of serious harm”,
such as grievous bodily harm or rape.
We also heard that if the proposed new offences were introduced, some abusive content may be treated as
“a more serious offence with a more serious penalty”
than if it were prosecuted under existing law. The Committee believes that is a positive step forward that would better capture the context-dependent nature of some online abuse. A photograph of someone’s front door, for example, may be entirely innocent in some contexts, but can take on quite sinister connotations in others, where it quite clearly implies a threat to a person’s safety.
The Government should also monitor how effectively any new communications offences, particularly the Law Commission’s proposed harm-based offence, protect people and provide redress for victims of online abuse, while also protecting freedom of expression online. The Government should publish an initial review of the workings and impact of any new communications offences within the first two years after they come into force. We have to make sure we take this opportunity to get this right and review it within two years to make sure it is as effective as it can be.
The Law Commission also recently concluded a review of hate crime law. It acknowledges two points highlighted in the Petitions Committee’s 2019 report: the unequal treatment of protected characteristics in hate crime law, and the failure to classify abuse of disabled people as a hate crime in cases where the offence may have been motivated by a sense that disabled people are easy targets, rather than being clearly motivated by hostility to disabled people.
The commission recommended extending existing aggravated hate crime offences to cover all characteristics currently protected under hate crime law, and reforming the motivation test for an offence to be treated as a hate crime, proposing an alternate test of motivation on the grounds of “hostility or prejudice”. The Government have stated that hate crime offences will be listed in the draft Online Safety Bill as priority illegal content. That means that the legislation will require platforms to take steps to proactively prevent users from encountering hate crime content.
There is some confusion, however, as we do not yet know if this will be limited to the existing stand-alone racially and religiously aggravated and stirring up hatred offences, or if the intention is to require platforms to proactively prevent users from encountering, for example, communications that involve hostility based on a protected characteristic such as disability. When the Minister responds, will he tell us what the Government expect the practical impact to be on how platforms are required to deal with, for example, the abuse of disabled people online?
Our inquiry heard again and again that changes to the law on online abuse risk becoming irrelevant, when we lack the capacity to even enforce the law as it stands. The uncomfortable truth is that, despite the dedication of our officers, police resources have been diminished to the point where even relatively simple crimes in the offline world go unsolved more often than not, according to Home Office statistics. Meanwhile, the proportion of reported crimes leading to successful prosecutions has reached an all-time low.
It is not surprising that we found such scepticism about the state’s capacity to enforce a law against criminal online abuse, which, in many cases, will be complex and time-consuming to investigate. Ruth Smeeth gave the following evidence to the Committee:
“When I got my first death threat in 2014, at that point the police did not have access to Facebook. It was banned…Although they can now see it, they do not have the resources available to help them prosecute. Whether the legislation is amended or not, it is so incredibly important that the criminal justice system can do its work. To do that, they need resources.”
While we believe the Law Commission’s proposals are eminently sensible, we are deeply concerned that the inadequate resourcing of our police and criminal justice system is the real elephant in the room. It could prevent us from dealing with the most serious forms of online abuse, such as death threats, the sending of indecent images and illegal hate speech.
I suspect that the Treasury is unlikely to look favourably on this resourcing issue any time soon, but the Committee would be neglecting its duty if we failed to draw attention to it. Resources in the police and criminal justice system have to be an essential part of the conversation on tackling online harms. If the Government are serious about tackling the most serious forms of online abuse, they must ensure that our police and courts have the resources to enforce the laws against it.
Although we talk a lot about Twitter, Facebook and TikTok in these discussions, abusive content hosted on smaller platforms also plays a significant role in encouraging prejudicial attitudes and real-world harm. Some of these platforms have become safe havens for some of the most troubling material available online, including holocaust denial, terrorist propaganda films and covid-19 disinformation. From an internet browser today, anyone can easily access videos that show graphic footage of real-world violence and allege the attacks are part of a Jewish plot, or find an entire channel dedicated to the idea that black people are a biological weapon designed to wipe out western civilisation—I could go on. Danny Stone of the Antisemitism Policy Trust told the Committee:
“It is not just the Twitters and Facebooks of this world; there are a range of harms occurring across a range of different platforms. It is sinister, we have a problem and, at the moment, it is completely unregulated. Something needs to be done.”
We have heard no evidence to suggest that the negative effects of abuse on people’s wellbeing or freedom of expression are any less serious because the abuse comes from a smaller platform. Failure to address such content would risk significantly undermining the impact of the legislation. The duties set out in the draft Online Safety Bill relating to content that is “legal but harmful” to adults must apply to a wide range of platforms to ensure that abusive content is removed from the online sphere, not merely shifted from the larger platforms to darker corners of the internet.
The Committee therefore recommends that the draft Online Safety Bill require smaller platforms to take steps to protect users from content that is legal but harmful to adults, with a particular focus on ensuring that such platforms cannot be used to host content that has the potential to encourage hate or prejudice towards individuals or communities. They do not get a free pass just because they are smaller platforms.
The Minister has previously indicated that the Government have considered amending the conditions for classing a platform as category 1, so that it covers platforms with either a high number of users or posing a high risk of harm to users, rather than both conditions having to be met, as is the case in the draft Bill. We would welcome an update on whether the Government are minded to take that forward.
Legislators have a way of making the debate around online safety sound incredibly complicated and inaccessible. However, the fundamental issue is simple: too many people are exploiting online platforms to abuse others, and not enough has been done to protect the victims and create online spaces where people are free to express themselves in a constructive way. In the offline world, there are rules on acceptable behaviour and how we treat other people. We invest huge amounts of time and energy into ensuring that those rules are followed as much as possible. The same simply cannot be said of the digital sphere.
The online world has changed dramatically in such a short time. Our laws and regulations have not kept up. They have allowed a culture to develop where abuse has become normalised. It was deeply troubling to hear in every single one of the Committee’s school engagement sessions that pupils believe that abuse is just a normal part of the online experience. Is that really what we want our children to grow up believing? We can do so much better than that.
Social media companies make so much money. It is not too much to ask that they invest some of that in ensuring that their platforms are safe, and that people cannot inflict enormous harm on others without consequences. Of course, there will always be some abuse and inappropriate behaviour online, and nobody expects any Government to prevent it all, just as no home security system could stop every clever and determined burglar, but we can certainly do a lot better.
The Committee welcomes the opportunity provided by the draft Online Safety Bill, and our report sets out several ways the Government can improve the legislation. Ministers must recognise the disproportionate way that women, ethnic minorities, people with disabilities and LGBT people are targeted, so that nobody feels they cannot express themselves or engage with others online. We need to hold the platforms accountable if they fail to prevent banned users from rejoining, and we must ensure our police have the resources they need to tackle the most dangerous forms of online abuse. We look forward to the Government addressing our recommendations when their formal response to our report is published, and to the Minister’s response today.
Social media offers such fantastic opportunities to connect with others and is a real source of positivity and enjoyment for so many people. If we get the Bill right, we will be taking the first step towards bringing some much-needed light to the dark side of social media and amplifying the benefits of the unprecedented connectivity of the world we live in. Our report and today’s debate are important steps in bringing to Parliament the concerns of hundreds of thousands of members of the public who want a safer and more equal online world. We will continue to hold Ministers to account on behalf of the petitioners, so that the draft Online Safety Bill makes its way through Parliament and achieves what we know petitioners want.
It is a pleasure to speak in the debate and address the petitions on online abuse, which reflect the understandable growing public concern about the prevalence of abusive material and behaviour online, in particular on social media. I chaired the Joint Committee on the Draft Online Safety Bill—the pre-legislative scrutiny Committee. We had consistent evidence from people about the nature of the abuse they had faced online, and how that abuse creates spaces online where not only are people targeted, but hate speech, racist speech, vile abuse and extremism have become normalised within the echo chambers of certain sectors of social media.
People are frustrated because they have raised these concerns directly with social media platforms, their Member of Parliament and the Government. The sort of action that they think should be taken to combat abusive behaviour, and that would be taken if the behaviour took place in a public space, is not being taken online. People cannot just log out of their accounts. We cannot just say, “Well, the easiest way to avoid online abuse is not to be online.” Many people are required to be online due to the nature of their work. Why should people not be able to go online and enjoy, as the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) said, the connectivity that comes from being on social media without being the victim or target of abuse? We do not create spaces for abuse in the physical world; we should not create such spaces in the online world either.
As the hon. Member said, the draft Online Safety Bill is big and quite complicated. I urge everyone to read the 60,000-word report by the Joint Committee. The Bill becomes a lot simpler and clearer after reading the report. At the heart of the Bill is something simple: activity that is illegal offline should be regulated online, and the laws that Parliament has created and that our courts enforce offline should be applied online as well. Offences are committed not just by someone who is abusing another person, but by a platform that actively hosts, amplifies and creates an audience for that content, and platforms should be liable to combat abuse. Indeed, without that liability, we will not be able to combat it.
Online platforms should not be amplifying abusive behaviour to others. In a shocking incident last summer—one of many—members of the English national football team were the subject of racist abuse after the final of the European championships. That was foreseen by the football authorities, who warned social media companies that this would be a problem, but the companies did nothing to combat it. The issue is not just that foreseeable abuse was not acted on and stopped; it is that social media companies’ systems were making people aware that the abuse was taking place, and even highlighting the key words. People were prosecuted in the courts following that event because of their use of racist language, and the racial abuse directed towards others.
We know what the offences are, and we know what the thresholds are for legal action. That standard should be enforced online. The draft Online Safety Bill should, by regulating illegal activity online, set the minimum standards required. It should allow us to set the safety standards that we think should be set, so that they are based not on terms of service written by American technology companies in California, but on our laws and the thresholds we set to keep people safe. They should be proactively enforced. The company should not be waiting for people to complain; they should be proactively looking for this content.
I will focus my remarks on a part of the Bill that it is important to get right: priority harms. The term that has been used is “legal but harmful”. Clearly illegal content exists; content that constitutes child abuse or a terrorist offence is clearly illegal and no context is needed to understand why it is bad. The Government propose creating a schedule of priority harms of other offences. I am pleased to see the steps the Government have taken since the Joint Committee report was published; they are writing more of those offences into the Bill, and making it absolutely clear when they apply. However, we do need certainty; victims need to know that an offence has been committed. They should be seeking redress based on the fact that an offence has been committed against them. The social media companies need to know which offences are in scope, and what they are expected to do in different situations. The regulator needs to give certainty, based on the law and its regulatory powers, about where those thresholds are.
That is why the Joint Committee recommended removing the definition of “legal but harmful” from the Bill, and instead writing into the Bill those offences that it applies to, making it really clear which offences are in scope. Once the regulator is established, its first job will be to create the risk registers from which it will create the codes of practice that apply to the different companies. Then the regulator will be well placed to act if Ofcom feels that there are gaps in the regulatory regime—if there are offences that should have been included but were not, or if new offences need to be added to the priority harm areas. It is much better if offences in the regulatory regime are based on laws that are understood, that Parliament has passed and that the courts enforce, so that there is no ambiguity. I understand the desire to future-proof the legislation, and to say, “Something bad may happen that we cannot foresee; there should be provision to regulate for that.” However, it is difficult to take enforcement action against a social media company for not acting against content that was not proscribed or recognised by the regulator.
The Government have done a good job of bringing so many offences into the Bill. One of the concerns was whether equalities legislation was enforceable online—how would we enforce race hate, and other abuse, online? The Government have made clear how that could be done. However, it would be better if the regulatory regime was based on offences named in the Bill, rather than our having an additional general definition of something that is “legal but harmful”.
I do not believe that the Government’s intention is for the regulator to start creating new offences; the Government want to bring clarity. Having a tight focus on existing offences, as regulated through the codes of practice that set the minimum safety standards, gives more clarity and more certainty. That is what people want. They want to know what they are being protected from, that the companies have to be proactive in removing certain sorts of content, and that there is no ambiguity or confusion over what that is and how it should be done. When the Minister responds and the Government give their thoughts about the final draft of the draft Online Safety Bill, they should bear that in mind. The Bill will provide a lot more clarity if we give people certainty—both those who are concerned about freedom of expression, and those who want to know that certain offences will be covered by the Bill.
I am very pleased to participate in this debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) on setting the scene so well, and on representing the Petitions Committee. My office faces online abuse regularly; the draft Online Safety Bill will lead to changes. I give credit to the Minister, who has always been very responsive to the issues that we bring to his attention. Today I seek confirmation that the commitment that the Minister has given will actually lead to the changes that we want. The petitions come at a pertinent time, as we are waiting to see the next stages of the draft Online Safety Bill. The Minister today has an opportunity to hear the points raised by our constituents.
As the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North said, covid-19 has moved many people online. Undoubtedly, people say things they should not online. They think there is no recrimination or accountability, but there is, and I hope the draft Online Safety Bill will give us the change that I wish to see. The online harms White Paper of April 2019 said that
“all pornography sites should have duties to stop children from accessing them, regardless of whether the sites hosted user-to-user content”,
“individual users should be able to complain to an Ombudsman when platforms failed to comply with their obligations”,
“a senior manager should be designated as the ‘safety controller’ with liability for a new offence—failing to comply with their obligations when there was clear evidence of repeated and systemic failings that resulted in a significant risk of serious harm to users.”
That was the request in April 2021. Perhaps the Minister can indicate whether we have got to that stage.
The hon. Members for Newcastle upon Tyne North, and for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins), referred to attacks on disabled people. The Minister is well aware of the disgraceful and disgusting comments made by an anonymous internet user to my colleague Diane Dodds MLA. They were absolutely despicable, atrocious, hurtful and dirty comments regarding the tragic death of her wee son, who was disabled. Politics had nothing to do with the response whatever. There was a cry from mothers and fathers throughout my constituency, urging me to make clear the changes that are needed to remove anonymity and remove the power from the unknown and faceless warrior trolls—those who pick on the most hurtful aspects of life and spew bile.
The person responsible happened to be from the Republic of Ireland, and I am very pleased that the investigation, which is ongoing, has ascertained who they are. My mailbox contained much correspondence from people who do not necessarily vote for my party. They were expressing their support for a lady who does not deserve such comments, regardless of her politics. That is an example of online abuse and its impact. That sums up one of the issues that I do not believe is fully addressed in the draft Online Safety Bill. I would like much stronger restrictions, to remove anonymity and to give platforms the responsibility to immediately remove posts and users once a complaint has been made. The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children—I declare an interest; I contribute regularly to the charity—argues for a regulator, who would enforce a duty of care, and a duty to protect children on social media. I make that plea again to the Minister, who I know is keen to respond.
Barnardo’s welcomed the draft Online Safety Bill, although it cautioned that the devil is in the detail, as it always is, and said that it would work with the Government to make sure that the legislation was effective as possible. Again, perhaps the Minister can respond to the comments from Barnardo’s and the NSPCC. Anne Longfield, the former Children’s Commissioner, said she was pleased that the Government would introduce a duty of care. However, she said it was essential that the draft Online Safety Bill was introduced as soon as possible to keep children safe. I do not pretend to have expertise—I have enough difficulty turning on my laptop, to be honest—but for those who use the internet regularly, there has to be protection.
Another great concern is about access to pornography. A survey carried out by Middlesex University, which was jointly commissioned by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and the Children’s Commissioner for England, showed that around 53% of 11 to 16-year-olds have seen graphic porn content online and that 94% of them had viewed adult content by the time they were just 14. In total, 1,001 children aged between 11 and 16 were questioned and the survey found that 65% of the 15 to 16-year-olds had viewed pornography and that 28% of 11 to 12-year-olds had done so. More than half of the boys surveyed—53%—said they thought that pornography was a realistic portrayal of sex, as did 39% of the girls surveyed.
The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North talked about that issue, and I totally agree with her because it shows the destructive effect that pornography has on our young people if they think that it is the norm, when quite clearly it is not. We need to correct that. I thank the hon. Lady for making that point; it was one of the issues that I wanted to talk about as well.
More than a third of 13 to 14-year-old boys and a fifth of 11 to 12-year-old boys also said they wanted to copy the action that they had seen. What will society be like if what is perverted and wrong is seen as normal? We have to address that very harshly, very strongly, very firmly and with great focus. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response on that issue.
This is a problem and we need to ask if it is being addressed in the Online Safety Bill thus far. I have my reservations and they are shared by Christian Action, Research, and Education, which says:
“The Bill is silent in respect to commercial pornographic websites that fall outside the scope of the Bill at present. It is also silent on whether the Bill will specifically cover some of the most violent pornography that is concerning because of its impact on violence against women and girls.
In its final submission to the Online Safety Bill Select Committee, CARE said it ‘disagreed with the Government’s claim that the most accessed pornographic sites will be covered by the Bill. The current definition of “user-generated” content means porn sites could simply amend how they operate to make sure they are outside of scope.’”
The Minister is always forthcoming with his responses and he is always incredibly helpful, but will he explain on the record how the Government will ensure that that will not happen? CARE’s concern is to thwart porn sites, to stop them acting outside the guidelines and laws by getting the rules moved slightly and then suddenly finding themselves protected.
The protection of innocents is something we must get right. We cannot protect our children from the world indefinitely—I know that—but we have to make every effort to do the best we can. However, the ability of children to access dangerous and harmful pornography must be curtailed. I would very much appreciate it if the Minister could outline how we can guard against certain user-generated content and keep it away from our children. With respect, I remain unconvinced that the Bill goes far enough.
The Library briefing for this debate notes that the Minister has said that priority offences will include encouraging or assisting suicide. That is so important. We all know of people in our constituencies who have lost their lives after listening to what someone said on a website. There are also offences relating to sexual images, including revenge and extreme pornography, which I have referred to already. We really need to address those priority offences. Other offences include incitement to and threats of violence, hate crime, public order offences, harassment and stalking, which many constituents have come to see me about. There are also drug-related offences, weapons and firearm offences, fraud and financial crime, money laundering, exploiting prostitutes for gain—it is despicable how pimps exploit ladies for their own gain—and organised immigration offences.
I am glad that the Minister has said that all of those offences will be priority offences. I want to ensure, however, that legislation, including the Online Safety Bill, can give us the confidence that our children will be protected, that vulnerable ladies will not be challenged, and that those who use online means for their perverted and evil deeds will be held accountable.
With that in mind, I believe that more needs to be done to get the Bill right. I look forward to the Government and the Minister, who is particularly interested in this subject—there is no dispute about that—doing the best they can to put the right Bill in place to provide the protection and confidence that I and my constituents need.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I thank the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) for her wide-ranging and powerful opening speech, and my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) for the incredible work he has done with the Committee.
I am grateful for the opportunity to talk about online harms and online abuse. We have heard some positive announcements from the Government, thanks to the Minister’s hard work; no doubt, we will hear more about that in due course. I have spoken before about the misery of the dark cyber streets and alleyways. Our constituents around the country are looking to us to help clean up digital Dodge City. The Government have responded by creating a wide-ranging draft online harms Bill and by taking the extra step of having prelegislative scrutiny, which was incredibly thorough and created the report on which we are concentrating our minds today.
Not all abuse is anonymous—I know that because I get quite a lot of it myself—but the most frightening threats are often from faceless, nameless and cowardly perpetrators, who prevent us from being able to assess and understand the true risk of a post because we do not know who is behind it. I have focused my time on campaigning to tackle anonymous abuse. I promoted a ten-minute rule Bill seeking verification measures, so that social media users could verify their own accounts. Why should only celebrities and MPs, for example, have blue ticks? That should be open to all and be clearly labelled. The Bill would also allow social media users to only follow and be followed by verified accounts. On the issue of verification, the petitions have attracted nearly 700,000 signatures. I thank everybody who has worked so hard to raise this issue.
I have spoken to the new Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and her team on a number of occasions. She has genuinely listened to the concerns of victims and I can see an incredible change of tack in the draft legislation, which addresses much more clearly the daily experience of social media users and the ways in which we can improve that experience.
I came to this issue originally because I received a lot of abuse when I announced my pregnancy, which is bonkers in this day and age. After that, Stroud residents spoke to me about their own experience of online abuse. They were everyday people, such as social workers, Army veterans and schoolgirls. The cyber-flashing issues faced by so many young girls are appalling, and the majority of that comes from anonymous accounts.
This job is very weird on a normal day, but I have been able to talk to some incredibly glamorous, popular and well-followed celebrities. I thank Bobby Norris, Katie Price, Emily Atack, Malin Andersson and others I have spoken to. They have brought to the fore the fact that, while we may look at them as glamorous people who are to be envied, behind the scenes they are suffering so much because of online abuse, which is scary, debilitating and damaging to mental health. Given all the people who are suffering, it is right that the Government have listened and made changes.
A few months ago, I gave a speech on this subject and tried to explain how parents had received abuse following the death of their children or babies. I really struggled, as I will never understand why people wake up in the morning and think it is okay to start sending nasty, threatening, scary or harassing messages to people. It is completely mindless and it needs to be shut down.
Briefly, we know that anonymity and lack of verification mean less self-policing, because users feel less accountable and responsible for their actions. We know that there is less actual policing because it is so difficult to trace people who are anonymous, and the preventive and protective measures can often be dodged—if we block or ban an abusive user on a platform, they just start a new account, as we have heard from other Members present today.
It is worth going over some of the challenges that my proposals to tackle anonymity and to introduced verification rightly received. First, people said that anonymity is a source of protection for marginalised and endangered people—there is a force for good in it. I completely agree that anonymity can not only fuel abuse, but offer a means of protection to enable people to get online. That is why the nuanced approach of giving social media users more choice, as we are suggesting, is so important.
Secondly, this is no magic bullet. The proposal would not stop all abuse online, and it would be wrong to suggest that that would be the case. That will not happen. We have not been able to eradicate bullying in the playground over all the years that that has been going on. However, our proposed measures, which have been added to the Online Safety Bill—I am so grateful for that—along with the creation of a regulator and other measures, will really help to significantly reduce abuse of all forms, but anonymous abuse in particular. People who choose that option can in effect opt out of seeing it.
I will conclude. I have kept my comments relatively short because I talk so often about this matter. I am keen to hear from the Minister and his opposite number, the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones), about what is to come. What we are seeing so far is very positive. It will be a very lively piece of legislation, not least because it is massive. It is right for such a serious piece of legislation to receive so much scrutiny and challenge. If it has the victims of abuse at its heart, and if we think about the whole range of different people who experience abuse daily and about the campaigning that is happening—supporting the FA with Kick It Out, and the racism and antisemitism groups—it is pretty obvious that this is the right course of action. We will be on the right side of history pushing the Bill through. I thank the Minister and his team for everything that they are doing.
I am very glad to respond to this important debate on behalf of the Opposition. It is also brilliant to serve under your chairmanship again, Sir Roger. I place on the record my thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) for her excellent work on the Petitions Committee inquiry, for introducing both e-petitions and for outlining the issues facing us and why we desperately need the Online Safety Bill.
Clearly, there is a strong appetite among constituents across the UK for a change in regulation of the online space. The strength of feeling about the need to strengthen online protections is crystal clear. Colleagues across the House noted that this afternoon. I also pay tribute to the hard work of campaigners, including Katie Price, Emily Atack, Amy Hart and Bobby Norris, whom I was hoping to have with us today. They have called for action for some time now, along with so many others. As has been noted, the petitions have amassed more than 800,000 signatures—a significant number that cannot be ignored. It is abundantly clear that the Government must now take notice and, most importantly, take decisive action.
The experiences and stories shared in the debate bring a very human issue into sharp relief. As others have said, it is easy to get lost in technical language when speaking about internet regulation, so let me be clear: the Government can and should do more. The Conservatives promised that the Government would bring what was billed in their online harms White Paper as “world leading” legislation urgently to the forefront of the parliamentary agenda. Yet here we are, more than three years later, and we are still waiting.
Never has such legislation been more timely, given what we are seeing with the disinformation and misinformation being spread online about the appalling situation in, and the invasion of, Ukraine. All our thoughts are with the people of Ukraine and we stand in solidarity with them today.
The Government’s first attempt at a comprehensive draft online harms Bill was widely seen as too narrow, hard to follow and confusing in parts, and it was indeed in need of significant strengthening. That opinion was shared throughout the sector. The children’s charity the NSPCC conducted its own analysis and found that the first draft of the Bill failed in 10 of its 27 indicators for the protection of children. Those damning concerns were shared elsewhere. A 2021 study by the online safety group Internet Matters found that the 2 million most vulnerable children in Britain are seven times more likely to come to harm online than their peers across the globe. Of course, colleagues and, I am sure, the Minister will already know that.
The need for change and real regulation online has been well reported and the reality is that without robust change, more and more people will continue to suffer abuse at the hands of an unregulated internet. We need only to reflect on last summer and the England side’s success at the men’s UEFA Euros final to scratch the surface of the power of the internet to perpetuate hate and abuse. Although I know that colleagues will be aware that I am an immensely proud Welsh MP and will therefore always naturally believe that the Welsh side was utterly robbed of glory—not just then, but at the weekend, too—the Euros final was a hugely exciting time for all our country and the nation as a whole. However, despite the incredible work of the team and the pride and unity that those football matches brought to so many, their achievements were hugely tarnished by the utterly shocking abuse a number of players faced online following an impossibly difficult penalty shoot-out. It is beyond reprehensible that social media companies defended the use of a monkey emoji—we all know what was meant—saying that it was out of scope and could not be regulated because it was an emoji.
It is not just about the football last summer. Only this afternoon, I saw a great, brilliant and prominent black Welsh rugby player, Ashton Hewitt, reaching out and begging Twitter to block an anonymous troll with the username LladdPoblDduon. For the non-Welsh speakers in the room, that username literally translates as “killing black people”. How are people even allowed to create an account with that handle?
That is why the Labour party has long called for tougher penalties for those at the top of social media companies. Ofcom will take on some of the biggest tech firms in the world, with all the power and resources at their fingertips. It is a David and Goliath situation and Ofcom must have access to a full range of tools in its belt, including a provision to make top bosses criminally liable for persistently failing to tackle online harm. We all want to see effective and fit-for-purpose legislation that cracks down on harms and the hate and fake news that flourish online. I reach out to the Minister and to his Government—he has the cross-party support to ensure that that happens.
Labour believes that it is only by making senior social media executives personally liable for failures to prevent dangerous content from spreading, including that which glorifies violence, racism, antisemitism, homophobia or misogyny, that we will ensure that the social media companies begin to take it seriously. Instead of doing the right thing, the Government U-turned on the commitment for the Bill to have its Second Reading before Christmas.
The Minister knows that the scale of the problem is huge, yet despite years of warnings from Labour alongside campaigning groups and charities alike, the Government have persistently delayed robust action. The vast range of people, from young to old, being impacted by online trolls hiding behind anonymity is truly massive, and we heard powerful testimony from the hon. Member for Stroud (Siobhan Baillie) about her experiences of suffering at the hands of anonymous trolls. It is a sad fact that women in public life see it as the norm that we are treated online as an easy target for abuse. By all means, debate my politics and my voting record, talk to me about my politics and my policies, but criticising my appearance, my accent, how I look and how I dress, just because I am a woman in public life, is completely unacceptable.
Although we welcome some of last week’s announcements, including the one that large social networks will be forced to let people filter out unverified accounts in an attempt to tackle anonymous abuse, there are still some gaping holes. They failed to address the back-of-house issues, especially those to do with illegal activity online. Moreover, the smaller social networks are yet to be factored in, as outlined by the Antisemitism Policy Trust.
The Government need to wake up and recognise that, sadly, when it comes to perpetuating hate, fake news or other negative behaviours online, the reality is that where there is a will, there is a way. The upcoming draft Online Safety Bill is a unique opportunity to put those wrongs right. That brings me to Labour’s key asks of the Minister this afternoon. I am keen to give the Minister plenty of time to respond, and we have that this afternoon, so I will keep my questions brief.
Given the urgency, and the devastation that an unregulated internet is having on users every day, will the Minister finally confirm exactly when this long-awaited legislation will be brought back to Parliament? We are looking for an exact date. Surely, given the long delays already incurred, giving clarification is the least that the Minister can do.
As I and others have already mentioned, anonymous abuse occurs not just on large platforms. In fact, some of the smaller platforms can be the most problematic in hosting, promoting and perpetuating abuse. Will the Minister confirm exactly how the upcoming legislation will ensure that the issues with smaller but high-harm platforms are also addressed?
I know that the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) raised this point, and it is an issue that I am personally concerned about. The Minister recognises the horrifying content that is so easily accessed online by anyone with an internet connection. I welcome the Government’s recent commitment to introduce age-verification technology to prevent under-18s from accessing pornography online, but the Minister must also know that the technology is far more advanced than ever before. Only this week, the BBC reported the extremely disturbing story about the Metaverse app, which, in essence, allows children into virtual strip clubs online. A researcher was able to pose as a 13-year-old girl and quickly witnessed grooming, sexual material, racist insults and a rape threat in a virtual reality world. I encourage colleagues who are not familiar with the story to read up on it and see the graphics for themselves, because they are utterly shocking and appalling. It just cannot be right. It is all very well banning access to pornography, but Twitter has a minimum age threshold of 13 and fails to block pornographic content on its site. It is simply unfathomable that that is allowed to continue.
The internet is an inherently creative space and the legislation must keep up. How will the Minister ensure that the Bill is future-proofed, to prevent it from being out of date—the next generation of technology is already coming through—by the time it is finally put in place?
Lastly, I repeat the calls made by the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) and the Joint Committee on the draft Online Safety Bill. Labour firmly believes that the online space must be kept in check by an independent regulator, instead of by distant bodies in Silicon Valley. That is what is urgently needed, and what we have urgently needed for a long time. I hope that the Minister is listening.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship once again, Sir Roger. Colleagues will be pleased to hear that I do not anticipate taking up the entire two hours that remain.
First, I associate myself with the remarks made by the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones), and by the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) about the terrible events unfolding in Ukraine, which are being debated in the Chamber at the moment. I know that we are all deeply concerned and want to send our thoughts, prayers and more to the people of Ukraine, who are suffering so terribly.
I congratulate and thank the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North for introducing the debate with such eloquence and passion. I extend those thanks and congratulations to the hundreds of thousands of people across the whole United Kingdom who signed the petitions, whose voices are being heard today, and especially to those who took the time and the trouble to organise the petitions, including Bobby Norris, who has done a huge amount of work in this vital area. I am sure that we all want to pay tribute to him.
Although the online world presents enormous opportunities for communication, research and better understanding one another, there is no question but that, as the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North put it at the very beginning, in many areas of enormous concern people are suffering terrible abuse that affects their day-to-day lives in the most awful and unimaginable ways. More than that, on occasion, people are subjected to abuse that is straightforwardly illegal and deserves criminal prosecution.
The Government fully recognise the problems in the online space, and the devastating impact that they can have on victims. We also recognise the fact that women, girls, people in the LGBT+ community, members of ethnic minorities, and others, very often—as the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North said at the beginning—suffer disproportionately severe forms of abuse online, simply because of who they are. That is a point that the shadow Minister also made very powerfully. It is simply unacceptable, and it is essential that we take action.
The draft Online Safety Bill is the principal vehicle through which action will be taken. It is a huge piece of legislation, as Members have mentioned, and I want to touch on some of the points raised about it during the debate. The shadow Minister asked about timing. It is true that it has been some time in preparation—from the White Paper, to the draft Bill presented last May, to the Joint Committee’s prelegislative work through the autumn and up until just before Christmas. I would like to take the opportunity to pay particular tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins), who chaired that Committee, which did fantastic work. Its report has almost 200 pages and we have been devouring every single one of them. To answer the question about timing, the introduction of the updated Bill is very imminent. I will not give a precise date, because it is still subject to collective Government agreement, but it is a matter of a small number of weeks, if I can put it that way. I hope that that gives an indication that it is extremely imminent and that all that work is about to come to fruition.
I want to make it clear that the Government have been in very careful listening mode for the past nine or 10 months since publication. We have, of course, listened to the Joint Committee and its report. The Select Committee on Digital, Culture, Media and Sport also produced a report, and Members who have been raising points about the Bill in Parliament and elsewhere. As Members will have gathered, significant changes will be made to the Bill on introduction. It will be very different, in a number of significant ways, when it is introduced very shortly, compared with the draft version published last May. That is due to the work that parliamentarians and other stakeholders—some children’s charities were mentioned earlier—have done. We want to take every opportunity to make sure that the Bill is as good as it can be. It is not really a party political issue, is it? I am sure there will be areas to improve, but when the Bill is introduced I hope that the House of Commons will get behind it and speak as one for the whole country, because we all have the same objectives. I think that the scrutiny that has already taken place has been an example of Parliament at its best, and I hope that when the Bill goes through the House it will be another example of Parliament working at its best.
I want to pick up on a few points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe. Obviously, I cannot pre-announce all of the updates that will be in the Bill. Some have been announced already. He made important points about ensuring clarity on how the different provisions will operate. We have already made it clear that we will specify the priority illegal offences, and social media firms will have to be proactive in preventing such illegal things from appearing online. That will be a first step towards providing some of the clarity referred to by my hon. Friend. There is then the question of how we bring similar clarity in the area of legal but harmful; there will be more to say on that in the very near future.
Whether or not the illegal act or illegal thing is a priority item, there will be a duty to take action where any illegal activity occurs online. Critically, that particular duty applies to all platforms, regardless of size, so even the smaller ones that are not category 1 will have to take action—proactive action for priority illegal harms, and retrospective action for everything else that is illegal. Similarly, on things that are legal but harmful to children, which is obviously a major area of concern, that duty will apply to all platforms where children are likely to be significantly present, regardless of the size of the platform. The only qualification on size applies to the area of legal but harmful to adults, where the obligations sit with the larger, category 1 companies. I want to make clear, however, that the Bill as previously drafted in May also applied to all platforms, regardless of size, the obligations relating to content that is illegal and legal but harmful to children. That point came up a couple of times.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who unfortunately has had to go to another meeting, raised points in his speech about the exposure of children to pornography. He was quite right to raise those points: 51% of 11 to 13-year-olds are exposed to online pornography. The overwhelming majority of parents want that to stop and, as the shadow Minister said, just a couple of weeks ago the Government made an announcement making it clear that the provisions on pornography would be expanded to cover all online pornography, including commercial pornography, which was previously outside the scope of the Bill. That vital change has been announced already and will be in the Bill on introduction, as will the obligations on the face of the Bill to adopt age-assurance measures to prevent children under 18 from accessing pornography. Again, that is an important change to make the Bill a lot stronger than it was in its first draft. I hope that that gives a foretaste, a flavour, of the way changes are being made to the Bill to ensure that we really do prevent the terrible abuse that we have heard about this afternoon.
A number of hon. Members asked about enforcement, because clearly it is all very well writing in obligations to stop illegal activity and to control abuse, but if the enforcement measures are not there, then, as the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North and others said, the legislation is toothless. I will not comment on the police, the prosecution, side of this—because that is for my colleagues in the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice—other than to observe that 20,000 extra police officers are being recruited and I hope that some of them can direct their attention to such issues.
The shadow Minister has said that it is important that the Bill is enforced domestically, here in the United Kingdom, and that we do not rely on people in California. That is of course why Ofcom is being appointed as the regulator. There was a question about resourcing. Between the Government and Ofcom, we will put an extra £110 million over two years into resourcing up in order to prepare for the Bill’s coming into force, and thereafter Ofcom will raise the money that it needs to operate by charging fees to the social media companies themselves. The £110 million has been agreed already; that was in the spending review a few months ago, so the resourcing for Ofcom is hardwired in. As for its ability to then take enforcement action, it clearly has the power to levy fines of up to 10% of global income for these social media firms. Although it depends on the geographic distribution of sales, 10% of global income is almost certain to be more than 100% of UK income, because the UK tends to be responsible for between 5% and 8% of those firms’ global revenue, so the fines amount to over a year’s worth of UK revenue. That obviously is for any company a significant amount of money.
The Bill already contains criminal liability provisions that make named individuals liable if they do not, for example, provide information to Ofcom as regulator. They commence a couple of years down the line. I do not want to pre-empt what we may do in that area, but we have been listening very carefully to parliamentarians and we are studying extremely carefully proposals that have been made. We may well have some more to say on that topic in the near future.
The shadow Minister asked about the Metaverse, which has been around for only a few weeks, and what the Bill will mean for that. The Bill has been crafted as it has to make it technology-agnostic and future-proof, because we realise that what is around today will be different tomorrow. The fact that the Metaverse has popped up in the last few weeks is evidence of that. The horrifying abuse of children in the Metaverse that the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North described will be covered by the Bill as drafted, because what she described is clearly harmful to children. When the Bill passes, as I hope it will, there will therefore be a duty on Meta to prevent that from happening. In fact, that would be the case even if it was not Meta and was a smaller company, because the bits of the Bill on content that is harmful to children apply to all companies where children are likely to be significantly present. Therefore, what the shadow Minister described on Meta would be in the scope of the Bill as we will present it.
I want to touch on the contribution from my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Siobhan Baillie) and on anonymity. I pay enormous tribute to the campaign that she has run. She has been a persuasive, powerful and persistent —in a nice way—advocate for changes, and her ten-minute rule Bill had enormous support from both sides of the House. On Friday, in response to the campaign that my hon. Friend and other MPs from both sides of the House ran, we therefore announced with great pleasure that we would make changes to the Bill and have a requirement for category 1 firms to give all users the choice to have their identity verified, and then give users the choice about whether or not to interact with people. That level of user choice and user empowerment will be powerful. I thank my hon. Friend again and congratulate her on her campaign. I agree, as the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North said in her speech and as my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud acknowledged, that although that measure will go a long way towards helping, it is not in itself a silver bullet. It is a very good measure, but we need to do more to prevent online abuse. The Bill will do more to tackle abuse, whether it is perpetrated by those who are anonymous or those who are not, because, as my hon. Friend said, much of the abuse is not anonymous. Shamefully, much of it is done in people’s own name, so that needs to be tackled as well.
I have tried to touch on the comments that colleagues have made, but I hope that everybody here and those listening will clearly understand that the Government and the whole House of Commons strongly sympathise and agree with the points made by the petitioners, and I suspect by millions of our fellow citizens up and down the country. When the updated Bill is introduced in the very near future, we aim to make it better and stronger to ensure that our fellow citizens—especially children, but including everybody who suffers abuse—are far better protected than they are today. I hope the Bill will serve as an example around the world and keep people in this country safe online for many years to come.
I thank the Minister for that response. I appreciate there are a range of issues that will become clearer once the Bill is introduced, but it is reassuring to hear so clearly the Government’s commitment to listening to the voices of the petitioners and to take forward the changes that we need to see.
I also want to thank and pay tribute to the hon. Members for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins), for Stroud (Siobhan Baillie), and for Strangford (Jim Shannon), and I thank also the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones). The Minister expressed correctly that this is a cross-party issue and we work together on it. It is not party political and we all want to see the changes. That is the power of petitioners, because we work together as parliamentarians, heeding the call from the public and from petitioners who want to see changes.
We know that social media offers fantastic opportunities to interact and connect in a way that previous generations —certainly when I was growing up—could never have imagined. It has been a lifeline for the last two years for so many people to be able to stay connected and see our families when we have been horribly deprived from interaction with others. But it has also allowed a horrible, toxic world to develop, which we need to get a handle on. We need to ensure not only that we create a more positive atmosphere but that we defend our freedom of speech, because parts of the online world are so toxic that they actively disallow the voice of those being targeted disproportionately for abuse online. It has not been better expressed than by Bobby himself, who said:
“I’m not here to bash social media. I love it, and 95% of it is an amazing tool…When used in the right way, it’s amazing, and especially during lockdown”.
He spoke of the ability to use technology to stay in touch with family and friends, and how it has been a lifeline, adding:
“But there is a very dark side to social media as well.”
Bobby and Katie have done the work, which cross-party colleagues have responded to to bring forward this legislation, working together to make it as strong, robust and long-term as it can be to get ahead of the social media companies that, quite frankly, are profiting from the pain of millions of people who are abused online. That needs to change.
We will continue to work with the Government but will very much hold their feet to the fire to make sure that the legislation is as strong as it can be. The Government will hear not only from the likes of me and my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd, but from their own Back-Benchers and most, importantly, from petitioners and the public, if we do not get this right. Let us work together to make sure we can truly create a positive online world for us and, most importantly, for the young people coming up in an online world that most of us did not grow up in.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has s considered e-petitions 272087 and 575833, relating to online abuse.