Skip to main content

Social Media: Offensive Material

Volume 811: debated on Tuesday 23 March 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are planning to take to remove anonymity from persons who post racist and other similarly offensive material attacking (1) sportspeople, and (2) other high profile public figures, on social media sites.

My Lords, the Government are clear that being anonymous online does not give anyone the right to abuse others. We are taking steps through the online harms regulatory framework to ensure that online abuse is addressed, whether anonymous or not. The police already have a range of legal powers to identify individuals who attempt to use anonymity to escape sanctions for online abuse. We are working with law enforcement to review whether the current powers are sufficient to tackle illegal anonymous abuse online.

Can the noble Baroness be more specific about what the online safety Bill will achieve? Presumably, it will force social media companies to take down the racist and sexist rantings of some of their customers and lead to prosecutions where the abuse goes far beyond any free-speech justification. How much has happened since the Culture Secretary’s welcome statement on 8 February that those companies can start showing their duty of care to footballers today by weeding out racist abuse now, and will football be a specific priority in the hate crime unit looking at online discrimination against protected characteristics, as specified under the 2010 Equality Act?

The Government are absolutely committed to making the internet a safe place for all, and of course that includes footballers and other public figures, but it also, very importantly, includes children, other vulnerable people and the general public. A key part of making this work is the duty of care that we will be imposing on social media companies, with clear systems of user redress and strong enforcement powers from Ofcom. I am happy to take the noble Lord’s suggestions regarding the place of footballers within the hate crime unit back to the department and, in relation to the equalities issue which he raises, he will be aware that it was very clear in the 2019 social media good practice code that social media companies are expected to have regard to protected characteristics.

My Lords, the requirement to love our neighbours as ourselves makes practical demands of our online behaviour: not only what is posted but also what is endorsed, what is given the oxygen of repetition and what is tolerated. The digital common good is threatened from both sides: by those who post racist and offensive material and by some social media sites that craft algorithms to curate, propagate and perpetuate in order to maximise income. So will the Government give urgent consideration to implementing a code of practice for both hate crime and wider legal harms, perhaps along the lines of the model code that Carnegie UK and a number of other civil society organisations, including my office, recently co-drafted?

The right reverend Prelate raises very important points. He will be aware that the Law Commission is reviewing the legislation in relation to offensive online communications to make sure that it is fit for purpose, and that its final recommendations will be made this summer. We are also working more widely with law enforcement to review whether we have sufficient powers to address illegal abuse online.

My Lords, will my noble friend include, in the reporting and duty of care on social media companies, harassment and bullying in the way that we have seen happen when people break off relationships or are threatened because they do not agree with a particular point of view? I have heard from a number of people who have been very frightened of going back on to social media because of the attacks that they have had to endure. Will she also make sure that media companies have enough resources to police and that the required processes are in place to do so?

My noble friend raises important points about harassment and bullying. The pile-on harassment to which she refers is one of the specific issues that the Law Commission will be making recommendations on. She mentioned the resources of social media companies, and we are less concerned about them. We feel that they have ample resources, but we will also make sure that Ofcom is fully resourced to respond.

My Lords, although we need to protect freedom of speech, urgent action is needed to deal with abuse of free speech on social media. Does the Minister agree that social media outlets should be required to remove material that contravenes race hate and libel laws and limit how many times messages are forwarded, as those who post racist and other offensive materials are not entitled to have their voices amplified?

The noble Baroness is right: what is illegal offline should be illegal online, and it is very clear that the social media companies should remove that content. Where there is harmful but legal content, they need to have very clear systems and processes to make sure that it can be removed quickly.

My Lords, this is not just a problem for famous people. If anything, it is a much more serious problem for members of the public. For example, mothers campaigning in Scotland to get schools reopened last year were attacked by anonymous cybernats and their children were threatened via direct messages on Twitter. Twitter is a real problem here, but there is a very simple solution, which is for Twitter or the Government to ban anonymous accounts. That would stop the abuse, it would ensure that anybody who tries to be abusive or threatening can be prosecuted and it would be a simple measure for those running Twitter, given the scale of their operation now, to introduce. Will the Government call them in, insist on it and, if they will not do it themselves, do it for them?

The noble Lord is right to raise the issue of the general public and the troubling example that he just shared with the House. However, banning anonymous accounts is not as simple as he suggests. They provide important protection for a wide range of vulnerable people, as well as journalists’ sources and others—so these are complex issues that we aim to address through the Bill.

My Lords, I am interested in the Minister’s comment that the department is in discussions with the police about the use of existing powers. Would it not be a good idea for the police to pursue a number of high-profile cases of bullying of children, rampant racism or threats to our democracy under existing powers until we get the proper legislation in place?

Just to be clear, I was speaking on behalf of the Government in conversation with the police. The noble Lord will be aware that the primary responsibility for this matter sits with the Home Office. The police are independent in how they pursue these cases.

My Lords, I share the concern of the noble Lord, Lord McConnell, about ordinary people who are humiliated and persecuted. May I suggest to my noble friend that, when looking at strengthening the law, the Government look at increasing penalties on media companies that do not obey the laws? Nothing has more effect than hitting the pocket.

My noble friend is quite right and the framework will aim to protect all users, particularly children and vulnerable users. As for hitting the pocket, she may be aware that the maximum fine that can be levied in future will be 10% of global turnover.

Footballers, women sports commentators and public figures generally receive daily racist, homophobic, misogynist vile abuse and personal threats inciting hatred and physical attacks. The Minister has promised that the Government will act against this in the online harms legislation. Players and commentators alike have acted against abuse but they need support. When will the Government bring forward their Bill; are they waiting for the Law Commission; what will its scope be in tackling abuse; will its codes be voluntary or statutory; what powers will Ofcom have to act; and will the Bill contain measures removing the anonymity of abusers, difficult though that may be, who post abusive material?

I may answer a number of the noble Lord’s questions in writing but the Bill will be brought forward this year.

Facebook already has a real-names policy but users often provide fake ID. To enforce real-name identity, a government-backed ID scheme would have to be introduced. However, bearing in mind the current public suspicion of surrendering personal data to tech platforms, are there any plans for the Government to introduce such a digital ID policy for all users?

The Government have an open mind on all these issues and the noble Viscount will be aware that the Secretary of State has indicated that he is minded to have pre-legislative scrutiny, which will provide a chance for transparent and robust scrutiny of issues such as that.