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Internet: Social Networking Sites

Volume 708: debated on Wednesday 11 March 2009


Asked By

My Lords, the Government work with providers of social networking sites to ensure that users and their data are protected securely and appropriately. As the noble Lord will know, the global nature of these sites and the ability of users to hide their identities mean that national limits of jurisdiction hold little sway. However, the Government support the safer social networking principles recently agreed by providers and the European Commission and consider that self-regulation through co-operation between industry and government is the most appropriate and flexible approach.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that reply, but is he aware of a group on Facebook called “Northumbria Police—what a group ov”—here I use the topical rhyming slang—“bankers”? On a more serious note, the group is posting messages that identify individual police officers, their families and their addresses, as well as sometimes posting photographs, and is threatening them with violence. Does he agree that this is an unacceptable abuse of freedom of speech and an intolerable attack on front-line police officers and their families? These officers are doing a difficult and dangerous job and this amounts to an undermining of the rule of law in a liberal democracy.

My Lords, like my noble friend, I have visited the site and am aware of the group to which he refers. My officials translated the name into a slightly more agreeable, bowdlerised form: “Northumbria Police—what a group ov onanists”. Having reviewed the content of the site, I share my noble friend’s view that it is deeply unacceptable. My understanding is that that particular site was originally a so-called open group, so the volume of members, as he will be aware if he has looked at the site, is of a greater magnitude than that of other comparable groups. We understand that some of the more offensive and racist remarks have been taken down within the site’s conditions of service. It has now become a closed group, although that does not remove the offence. On a personal note, I rather share my noble friend’s views.

My Lords, while recognising the need to protect the police from unnecessary harassment, does the Minister agree that there is a danger in this area for excessive regulation and does he agree with the statement made last year by the Information Commissioner, who is shortly to retire, that we are in danger of walking into a surveillance society?

My Lords, I certainly agree with the noble Lord that in this area aggressive, prescriptive, statutory regulation is inappropriate. It simply does not work. The particular social networking site to which my noble friend refers is, in fact, US-based. None of its servers is hosted in the United Kingdom and they have no capability in the United Kingdom. Therefore, the reach of the rule of UK law, however severe, would in truth be meaningless, even if it were appropriate. It is also inappropriate because, for many of these sites, the technology and the capability change. We have to address this area as a community of interest. Like all communities of interest, we need to encourage a degree of disciplined and effective self-regulation. While this particular site borders on the offensive, many other sites show excellent examples of effective self-regulation, notice and takedown, control and self-discipline. These sites are attracting 10 million active users in this country and the volume of positive activity far outweighs the volume of negative activity.

My Lords, does my noble friend not agree, following the last question, that young people need protection on these sites and their parents cannot always give it?

My Lords, young people indeed need protection, and not just young people, which is what lay behind the agreement published last week under the auspices of the European Commission—the so-called safer social networking principles. This is a classic example of an area that is far better dealt with on a pan-Europe basis because of the international nature of these sites. There are seven basic principles contained in that document. They make sound sense, are subscribed to by all the major social networking sites and, in the main, seek to get the balance right between providing protection and allowing communities to work in a way that suits their own interests.

My Lords, the press recently reported that Whitehall has advertised a senior post paying £120,000 a year, the job description for which includes that it,

“will involve supporting Ministers and senior officials in entering conversations in which Government does not control the message or the dialogue”.

Is it so uncomfortable to the Government not to be able to control the message that it is necessary to spend £120,000 of taxpayers’ money a year on it?

My Lords, I feel that we are a long way from social networking sites. I entirely share the view that we are living in a world where control of the message is very different. My noble friend’s Question asks Her Majesty’s Government what powers they have to control social networking sites. In this world, control in those terms is no longer an appropriate model. We have to learn to work in a very different way, however well or expensively we are advised.

My Lords, if it is the case, as the Minister has just suggested, that control is not possible, how does he suggest that we deal with cases where the content on these sites is not offensive, which perhaps is neither here nor there, but is endangering? The original example—namely, the home addresses of police officers—can endanger, particularly in the context of Northern Ireland.

My Lords, there are in some instances fine lines. As a starting principle, it is worth restating that what is illegal offline is illegal online, a point that is often forgotten. There are also specified offences—child pornography and race hate abuse are two examples—where there is an immediate notice-and-takedown requirement on any service provider or social networking site. In our collaborative and co-operative non-advised fashion, we have worked with service providers to agree a set of guiding principles. Each of these service providers and sites has its own acceptable use policies, but these vary. For example, Yahoo!—a site of which many noble Lords may be aware—has a policy that it describes as recognising dignity in death. For example, when the hanging of Saddam Hussein was available as video material, it did not allow it on its site. By contrast, other sites, which have a freedom of speech principle enshrined in their terms of use, did allow it. These are in part matters of interpretation and in large part the world we are now living in.

My Lords, the noble Lord mentioned incitement to racial hatred as being one of the considerations as to what should be on a website, but what is the responsibility of social networking sites, newspapers that allow comments on their news items or any providers of space on the net for a third party who places on the site material that incites racial or religious hatred? Does not the provider have some responsibility in that regard?

My Lords, as the noble Lord will be aware, this is a grey area. There is a degree of policy and legal debate and discussion around what is called the “mere conduit” principle as it applies to service providers specifically and to host sites. In large part, when notification of illegality or offence is received, the host will, as long as it matches either the terms of use or the rules, withdraw the content. But allocating absolute responsibility to the provider is a difficult and grey area.

My Lords, is there not also a major security problem in the centre of the whole question of control of cyberspace? Are not terrorist and criminal organisations adept at developing their own co-ordination and efforts through the internet and cyberspace? Should we not be moving towards a more co-ordinated regime, if not control, under which the servers will agree to common standards, rather than going their own way? I understand that they are not being very helpful at the moment. Is that right?

My Lords, that is not correct. The industry co-operates fulsomely and in some detail with the relevant parts of government that deal with the issues of cyber and digital security, however you wish to provide it. On the questions raised by the noble Lord around network resilience, data security, data centres and access to information, there is a co-ordinated approach and the industry is constructively engaged with government.