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Social Media: Online Anonymity

Volume 795: debated on Wednesday 6 February 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking, or intend to take, to deal with online abuse by people using anonymous social media accounts.

My Lords, online anonymity is an important part of a free and open internet—but being anonymous online does not give anyone the right to abuse others. The Government have made it clear that more needs to be done to tackle all kinds of online abuse. We will publish a joint DCMS-Home Office White Paper this winter, setting out a range of legislative and non-legislative measures and establishing clear standards for tech companies to help keep UK citizens safe.

My Lords, does the Minister accept and understand the huge concern of law-abiding citizens that people are hiding behind anonymous accounts and making threats to kill, to rape, to assault and to bully, using racist, anti-Semitic and Islamophobic language? The platforms that host these people have done nowhere near enough to deal with this problem. If they will not get their own house in order, the Government must make them, through legislation. Will the Minister impress on his colleagues in government that the forthcoming White Paper must make that clear to them?

I am happy to be able to agree with the noble Lord. Let us be clear: when abuse exceeds the threshold and moves into criminality, in most cases so-called anonymous perpetrators are actually traceable, so they can be prosecuted according to the law. I recognise the public disquiet about this, and, as the noble Lord said, we are considering what more can be done, by non-legislative means but also, when required, by legislation—and there will be legislation. We will consider what to do about anonymous abuse specifically, and we will address that in the online harms White Paper, which, as I said, is due out this winter.

My Lords, does my noble friend recall that we got a dramatic improvement in attitudes towards health and safety when we made the directors of the company personally liable for it? Should we not do the same for internet service providers?

One of the things we are considering is a duty of care. That might include holding directors personally responsible. We have not decided that yet, but it is certainly an idea worth considering. As it is a White Paper that is coming out this winter, there will be a consultation on it, so we welcome views from my noble friend.

My Lords, the Law Commission, in its scoping report last November into abusive and online communications, said that one of the key barriers to the pursuit of online defenders was,

“tracing and proving the identity of perpetrators, and the cost of doing so”.

I heard what the Minister said about the White Paper’s contents, but will the Government include a provision allowing the stripping of anonymity in circumstances of online crime? Have the Government had any discussions with the police or other enforcement agencies to understand the issues they face in tracking these perpetrators and bringing them to justice?

It is certainly something worth considering in the White Paper, but as far as dealing with the police is concerned, the Home Office is working with policing to identify ways to tackle this when it goes over the threshold into criminality. These are relatively new crimes; the police will have to evolve methods to deal with them. We have also worked with the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions. There is a digital intelligence investigation programme, aiming to ensure policing has the ability to investigate the digital elements of all crime types. Also, the Home Office is working with the College of Policing to drive improvements in overall police capability to investigate and prosecute online offences.

My Lords, going back to the Minster’s original response, in what sense does he believe anonymity helps freedom of speech?

I said “if”—we do not think only about this country. That is one example. If you are a 15 year-old girl who is being abused, being able to go on to the internet to ask for health advice or let people know about it is an example of where anonymity can sometimes help.

My Lords, our children grow up in a world that is under huge pressure from social media. They never get a day, or, indeed, a night off. This is a world where no one seems to take accountability or responsibility for what is said at all. While we all argue among ourselves about what to do, I urge the Minister and those drawing up the White Paper to start with the simple but powerful principle of transparency. We should not allow people to hide behind the veil of anonymity.

As I said, sometimes anonymity is the right thing, but I take on board what my noble friend says. We definitely believe that tech and social media companies need to take more responsibility. We have said that. The Secretary of State plans to visit them to outline some of the measures we propose to take. There is absolutely no doubt that there is general feeling in the public that something needs to be done to control these large social media companies. People have to take responsibility. We will make sure that that happens, with legislation if necessary.

My Lords, will the Minister get a copy of the speech made today by Tom Watson, the deputy leader of the Labour Party, on this subject, and consider each of his proposals carefully?

As I said earlier, this is a White Paper and we are having a consultation. We certainly welcome views from everyone. I will make sure that the letter is looked at in the department—I probably will not even have to tell them to do that. However, we are trying to build a consensus. We have to take into account libertarian views, the need to preserve innovation for tech companies—which is so useful to our economy—and to protect vulnerable people, especially children.

My Lords, could we return to the issue of policing resources, which was alluded to earlier? There are two areas which have serious concerns for the police and also, therefore, perhaps for the Government. One is the recovery of digital evidence, which has already proved challenging in rape cases and other sexual offences where mobile phones have to be examined in great detail. The second point is that this is a people process as well as a hardware process. Both require lots of people, and at the moment, this explosion of criminal offences means that it is demanding an awful lot of people and cost at a time when police numbers are dropping. It is something that the Government have to consider seriously.

Regarding the first part of the noble Lord’s question, we are supporting the Digital Public Contact, which will deliver a single online home for policing and provide a secure digital channel for the public to upload evidential material in a digital format. I have explained what we are doing with the College of Policing.

As for the second part of the noble Lord’s question, my noble friend the Home Office Minister is sitting next to me and I am sure has listened to his point.

My Lords, are the Government really prepared to take these companies on? I pray in aid the Government’s approach to getting them to pay proper tax in this country. Despite the huffing and puffing we have heard from the Chancellor, no action has been taken. Can the Minister assure me that the Government are prepared to take them on?

In the area that we are responsible for, regarding online harms and safety, we are. As far as tax is concerned, that is a different matter and I do not have the responsibility for it. However, I am sure that the Chancellor will listen to the noble Lord’s views.