Skip to main content

Online Harm: Women and Girls

Volume 715: debated on Thursday 26 May 2022

4. What assessment she has made of the potential impact of provisions in the Online Safety Bill on the level of protection from online harm and abuse for women and girls. (900240)

The Online Safety Bill, which went into Committee on Tuesday, rightly has extremely strong protections for women and girls. The hon. Lady will have noticed that, in schedule 7, crimes such as harassment, stalking, revenge porn and extreme porn are designated as “priority offences” , and those measures protect women in particular. They are offences where social media firms have proactively to take steps to prevent that content appearing online. We have also added cyber-flashing as a new criminal offence to the Bill.

Will the Minister consider what penalties can be brought against social media companies that fail in their duty to protect young girls and women, given that the number of eating disorders have risen exponentially in the past few years and, sadly, young women and girls are having suicidal thoughts owing to the way these automatic artificial intelligence practices work? What action will the Minister take on that?

The hon. Lady is raising an incredibly important issue. Both girls and boys are covered under the provisions that protect children from harms. When we designate the list of harms, I expect that it will include eating-related matters and suicide and self-harm content, mindful of the terrible case of Molly Russell, who committed suicide after being bombarded on Instagram. We will also be publishing, in due course, the list of harms applying to adults. The penalties that will be applied if companies breach these duties include fines of up to 10% of global revenue, which tends to be about 100% of UK revenue. In extreme cases, if they persistently fail to comply, there are denial of service provisions, where these platforms’ ability to—[Interruption.] This is an important question. Their ability to transmit into the UK can be completely disconnected.

Will the Minister consider amending the Online Safety Bill in the light of the Financial Conduct Authority’s recent warning that there has been an 86% increase in screen-sharing scams in just the past 12 months?

Yes. The Bill is technology-agnostic, meaning that it does not refer specifically to technology because, obviously, technologies evolve all the time. My hon. Friend touches on fraud; the Bill was amended before its introduction to include in the scope of its duties advertisements that promote fraud, but I am happy to meet him to discuss further the particular issue he has raised.

Violence against women and girls is a systemic problem online, but the Government have failed even to name it in the Bill. The Minister knows that there is widespread support for tackling this issue in the sector and among his own Back Benchers, and I know that Members from all parties would welcome it if he went further. I ask once and for all: why have the Government failed to tackle violence against women and girls online in its most basic form and not included misogyny as a priority offence in the Bill?

I strongly dispute the suggestion that the Bill does not protect women and girls. I have already said in response to the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) that we have created a new cyber-flashing offence and that we have named offences such as harassment, stalking and revenge porn as priority offences—

Those things are already priority offences in schedule 7 to the Bill. The Bill went into Committee on Tuesday and I look forward to discussing with the shadow Minister and other Committee members ideas to improve the Bill as it goes through Parliament.

I warmly welcome what we are doing with the Online Safety Bill to protect people from harm, because tech companies have been far too lax at doing so for far too long, but there is concern in some quarters that we will unintentionally end up restricting freedom of speech by conflating opinions that people do not like to hear with actual harms that are done online. Will my hon. Friend reassure me that we will ensure that we stay on the right side of that line and protect freedom of speech in the Bill?

Yes, I can categorically give that assurance. There has been some misinformation around this issue. First, there is nothing at all in the Bill that requires social media firms to censor or prohibit speech that is legal and that is harmless to children. Reports to the contrary are quite simply untrue. In fact, there is express provision in the Bill: clause 19(2) expressly provides for a new duty on social media firms to have regard to free speech. Such a provision does not currently exist.