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House of Commons Hansard
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Social Media Service Providers (Civil Liability and Oversight)
28 February 2018
Volume 636

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

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I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make social media service providers liable for online publications in respect of civil proceedings in specified circumstances; to establish and confer functions upon a commissioner for online safety; to make provision about the disclosure of certain information by social media service providers; and for connected purposes.

I suggest to the House that this Bill is an important legislative proposal. In the three weeks subsequent to my tabling it, two incidents have occurred that have directly impacted me, my staff and my family. Those incidents are specific examples of why our powers in this country over internet companies are too weak, and this Bill would transform the situation. In the first example, a series of violent threats were directed at me and my family on Twitter, and they were acted on by the police in the appropriate way. Immediately on receiving the tweets, I registered them, in the Twitter style, with Twitter. Doing so removes them from the public domain. The police need to know the precise times at which those tweets were sent—not the times at which they went on to the parliamentary system via email, which I can give them—but Twitter refuses to provide them to me.

The second example concerns Facebook. A gentleman was convicted and imprisoned—I believe he is still in prison—following a series of very aggressive internet attacks on other Members of Parliament and me. I was referred to directly in the court proceedings. Last week, there was a repeat of these Facebook attacks. A fake account was created in my name, with my face on it, to put out statements that could best be described as incendiary. They are the sort of thing that none of us in here, myself included, would ever dream of saying, and they are designed to incite violence against me. The first time that happened, it had just such an impact: extremists in my locality made direct and specific threats. Facebook refuses to assist by providing the message, which was immediately deleted, so that I can give it to the police. The individual who originated it has served, and may still be serving, a custodial sentence for precisely such activity, with that exemplar part of the case taken against him.

I come to the purpose of the Bill. If the broadcast media—television or radio—or the newspapers failed to co-operate, I would be free to take civil action against them, as would the Government and the police. To take action in the courts might be complicated, but the fact that it is possible means that newspapers and broadcast media are co-operative with individuals and the police. When it comes to internet companies, we have no such powers. Our law comes from section 230 of the United States Communications Decency Act 1996, which explicitly confers immunity on the operators of internet services, who are not deemed to be publishers of, and therefore not legally liable for, the words of third parties who use their services.

European directive 2000/31 of the European Parliament and the Council on 8 June 2000 was harmonised into UK law by the Electronic Commerce (EC Directive) Regulations 2002, which also explicitly give immunity to internet companies. Such immunity is not given, in a free and competitive market, to newspapers, television or radio. In other words, there is a specific immunity solely and exclusively for internet companies.

I am not seeking, and I am sure that Parliament would not seek, to interfere with the rights of free speech or a free internet. But with a democratic internet, just as with a democratic media and free press, we need the ability to act if criminal acts are being carried out that impact on us. The two examples that I have given have had an impact on me, my staff and my family, and one of the perpetrators has been through a criminal prosecution and been imprisoned. If we could use the same process with internet companies as we can with other media, internet companies would co-operate immediately.

It is absurd that the police in this country cannot force Twitter, Facebook, Google or any of the others to provide evidence that is required for criminal prosecutions. It is done on the basis of good will. Successive Governments have attempted to establish good codes of conduct. The internet companies have their conditions of service, in which they say what they will do. I would consider taking action in precisely the cases in which those terms and conditions have been broken but the internet company has failed to act appropriately. It cannot be right that with Twitter, for example, our police can wait many weeks for evidence that they require to prove criminality—it could be to do with terrorism or other violent threats—and there is no guarantee that they will get it.

The simple removal of the internet companies from this exemption would create an equal playing field in the media market for television companies, radio and the free newspapers. It would get rid of some of the absurdities. At the moment, it is possible to have an impact on something that is published in the media, but the same thing can run simultaneously on the internet and we do not have those powers. There are countless examples.

A very good debate was initiated in the House of Lords by Baroness Kidron. I have not got the time to go into it, but I recommend it to the House. She went through precisely how social media companies commission, edit and curate content for broadcasting and publishing. One example of how that affects our societal values is the spreading of fake news. We have seen that with the outbreak of measles, which may have been caused by fake news about inoculations. If an internet company fails to act, there is nothing that Government can do about that, even if public health in this country could be under threat. Should the Government choose to do something about it? That is a different question, which involves a different set of decisions. But the Government cannot do so, because they do not have the power. We are seeing mounting pressure. Germany has adopted a fairly modest system with the potential to fine companies for a failure to remove content within 24 hours. Australia has brought in an e-safety commissioner. This Bill suggests a similar thing could happen in this country.

At its core, we need to treat the internet companies in exactly the same way as other media. A free media can be taken to court if it fails to co-operate on criminality. What is good enough for TV, radio and newspapers is good enough for social media and the internet. I recommend the proposed Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That John Mann, Ruth Smeeth, Luciana Berger, Dr Matthew Offord, Nicky Morgan, Andrew Percy, Anna Turley, Lilian Greenwood, Liz Saville Roberts, Dr Lisa Cameron and Mr Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi present the Bill.

John Mann accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 27 April, and to be printed (Bill 170).