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Social Media: Online Abuse

Volume 779: debated on Wednesday 15 March 2017


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they plan to create statutory guidance to ensure that social media sites address online abuse.

My Lords, the growth of the internet has brought us many opportunities but unfortunately, all too often, it has been exploited by those who seek to use it as a tool to spread hatred and to target individuals and communities because of who they are or what they believe. The Government are determined to do everything possible to stamp out hate crime. The UK already has some of the strongest legislation on hate crime anywhere in the world, and these laws apply online. We will continue working with a broad range of stakeholders both nationally and globally as we seek to eradicate the threats and harms that we face.

I thank the Minister for that Answer. Last week, when the BBC questioned over 100 images of children on Facebook, only 18 were removed as a result. The BBC was then asked to send screen grabs of the images to Facebook and instead of acting to take them down Facebook then reported the BBC journalists to the police. Yesterday, Google, Twitter and Facebook appeared before the Home Affairs Select Committee, where Twitter admitted that it was not doing a good enough job on hate crime. The Minister expects robust processes to be in place, but if she will not consider statutory guidance, what is the Government’s plan to protect victims of online abuse?

I take note of the noble Baroness’s account for the House of the issues raised in the BBC case last week. It is of course right that we should continue to keep our position under review, but a complete response to this problem requires more than just legislation; it needs the support of internet service providers and their communities along with the application of advanced technologies. For instance, in our work in countering violent extremism, counter-narrative initiatives are required, along with disruption mechanisms and robust complaints and take-down procedures. All of this serves to challenge the hatred that people are facing online.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that it is far too easy to access abusive and explicit content on social media services, including Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, Yik Yak, Vine, Kik and doubtless many others, and that such companies need to do more to help parents in their parenting so that children can take advantage of technology in a safe and responsible way.

The noble Baroness is absolutely correct. It is indeed important that companies should take responsibility for their actions. The majority of internet platforms are based overseas and provide global services, and as the House is fully aware, there is significant complexity around introducing any regime that governs online activity, including keeping any such obligation current given the speed of the evolution of technology, the global nature of the internet and the extraterritorial nature of the jurisdiction that applies.

My Lords, are the laws enforced by the authorities both online and offline the same? If not, why not, and will that be rectified in the legislation presently going through this House?

Yes. I should say to my noble friend that we are clear that what is illegal offline is also illegal online. Legislation is in place to deal with internet trolls, cyberstalking, harassment, revenge porn and the perpetrators of grossly offensive, obscene or menacing behaviour.

My Lords, the government guidance, Child Safety Online, which is not statutory, is very clear about what social media sites should do in the event of hate crimes, and equally importantly, online abuse. In the BBC case which has already been referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Nye, of 100 sexualised images some were also child pornography, which poses a real risk. Given Facebook’s response, at what point will the Government make the guidance statutory as opposed to just general guidance, because it is clear that it is not being followed?

Statutory guidance is one of a range of options that could be chosen when placing an obligation on companies to take greater steps to tackle the misuse of their platforms. It is right that we should continue to press companies to take more effective action to tackle any misuse of their platforms and services, and to strengthen and act on any contraventions of their terms and conditions of use, which go further than the law itself.

My Lords, the reality of online harassment and bullying has resulted in some teenagers taking their own lives. I accept the Minister’s point that statutory guidance is not the only answer, but it is a part of it. Given that, will she listen to the House and agree to bring forward statutory guidance on online abuse so that we can end the bullying, harassment and intimidation which is costing young lives?

I thank the noble Lord and acknowledge the importance of the tragedies that have affected a lot of young people online. I shall take forward his thoughts and come back to him. Realistically, we have in place a strong regime of recommended guidance for companies through the UK Council for Child Internet Safety, and companies comply with it. I would say that today we are further along in combating child sexual abuse and exploitation online, and as new developments emerge, we will need to continue to evolve the guidance to support people and victims and to address the perpetrators of these crimes.

My Lords, surely one of the major challenges is that of looking at what measures can be taken to address online anonymity.

Online anonymity is a particular problem. Online abuse is abhorrent and its consequences can be devastating, but oftentimes people are anonymous and it is difficult to track them. Unfortunately, while online abuse is always harmful it is not always illegal, so the goal of the Government is to equip people with the knowledge and the tools they need in order to be digitally resilient. That is why last week the Government announced a new duty on all schools to provide education on online relationships as part of the PSHE curriculum and have announced a cross-government internet safety strategy with a Green Paper that is due out before the summer.