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Online Hate Speech

Volume 789: debated on Thursday 15 March 2018


Asked by

My Lords, this Government abhor all forms of hate speech. It is clear that what is illegal offline is also illegal online. That is why we are taking a cross-government approach through the hate crime action plan, which will be refreshed this year. We are funding an online hate crime hub, building digital resilience and have successfully worked with industry and partners internationally to agree the removal of illegal content within 24 hours.

My Lords, we know that websites and apps have brought many benefits, but at a cost. From my own visits to schools, I am particularly concerned about the hate speech that young people are exposed to online, including through anonymous apps like Sarahah. What are the Government doing to ensure that the age verification checks on apps are effective? How are the Government working with smaller developers to ensure that their platforms are not used to propagate threats and hate speech?

The right reverend Prelate raises a very important issue in the online space for children and young people, because we know that they spend a significant amount of time online. The Government are working extensively with platforms on matters such as age verification, and on things like bullying and trolling online that young people are exposed to that can blight their lives.

My Lords, on the basis that the House cannot get enough of the European Union at the moment, I ask whether the Minister has seen the Reuters article dated 19 January entitled “Social media companies Facebook, Twitter, Google’s YouTube have accelerated removals of online hate speech in the face of a potential European Union crackdown”. Does she agree that pressure brought to bear on social media companies by the 28 countries of the European Union is likely to be far more effective than the UK dealing with these companies alone?

I hope I can assure the noble Lord that in fact the UK does not come from a position of thinking that it can deal with these things alone. It is not just a European problem; it is a global problem. On the European point, one of the key aims of the EU code of conduct on countering illegal hate speech online is to increase the proportion of illegal hate speech online that is reported within 24 hours. We fully support that.

When did the noble Baroness last speak to the internet providers and other companies on these matters, to have this disgusting material removed from their sites? As the right reverend Prelate said, small developers are a particular concern. Does she believe that all companies do everything possible to get this material down?

I had the opportunity to speak to internet providers at the G6 when we were discussing this very issue. Both the UK and France were strong on pushing for illegal content to be taken down within 24 hours. I have had other opportunities to speak to internet platforms on the same thing. I agree with the noble Lord that some of the smaller companies maybe do not have the technologies, but they should partner with some of the large companies. Yes, I have spoken on several occasions to them.

Does my noble friend agree with me that all Members of this House should be working to eradicate all forms of hate speech? I note that the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, is desperate to get into this question. Maybe if he has the opportunity to do so, he would explain whether he thinks it appropriate for Members to host the likes of Tommy Robinson within the precincts of this House at a time when there is an increased risk in relation to hate crime and Members of the other House have been receiving hate letters.

I could not agree more with my noble friend that this is not just a governmental or societal issue. As legislators for this country, we have a strong leadership role to take, and it dismays me when I see certain quite extreme people invited into the Palace of Westminster to propagate their hate.

My Lords, I have been mentioned. I shall stick to the Question. Does hate speech include criticising Islam or any of the world’s great religions as opposed to insulting their adherents? Does our legislation make that distinction and, if not, should it not do so?

There is a clear distinction. Expressing one’s own opinion can offend people; there is a right to offend. However, there is no right to propagate speech that goes to a particular characteristic, whether that be race, religion, disability or sexuality, and promotes hatred against that person.

My Lords, will the Government consider introducing an education programme for this House so that we can address some of the bigotry that we regularly hear here?

I am rather depressed to say to the noble Lord that it is not just here that we hear what I would call religious illiteracy, sometimes going into the area of downright misleading comments; it is within our legislature, the media and online. Through all strands of society, we need to tackle this.

My Lords, following on from the question on education, will the Minister accept that this will not be resolved merely by technical control of platforms? That may be necessary, but it is not sufficient. Can she assure the House that among the things taught at primary schools and upwards is the stark fact that, in the chequered history of this country, the most glorious hours were spent and the greatest sacrifices made in defeating an ideology that at its core had racial, homophobic and political hatred, and that you abandon the history of this country in its greatest hours by indulging in any of those? Our young people should know that.

The noble Lord makes an extremely good point. We need to be clear about opinions and the right to free speech. This country fought long and lost many lives in that very battle against religious and racial hatred.