Internet (Criminal Offences)

– in the House of Commons at 2:05 pm on 30 March 2001.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. McNulty.]

Photo of Sandra Gidley Sandra Gidley Liberal Democrat, Romsey 2:32, 30 March 2001

I am grateful to have the opportunity to speak on this subject today. There has been a certain amount of interest in the fairly enigmatic title of the debate. For example, a journalist rang me up and asked whether I would use the opportunity to talk about a gentleman who had put a contract out on someone using the internet, but I shall disappoint people if they think that that is what I am talking about today. So I thought that it would be helpful to start by explaining that I want to concentrate on the problems caused by using a website to bully, harass or defame an innocent member of the public.

When I originally drafted the title of this debate, I was summoned to the Table Office and told that no Minister appeared to have responsibility for the subject. So I apologise to the Minister for perhaps getting him here under false pretences, but I hope that when he hears what I have to say, he will agree that some action is needed to deal with the problem that I am about to describe.

It would be helpful to outline the events that took place. I was visited at my surgery by the mother of a teenager. For reasons that will become obvious, I should like to keep the names confidential, so I shall call the teenager child A. Her son had been subjected to what can only be described as a particularly nasty form of homophobic bullying using the internet. Child B had set up a website in the name of child A and using child A's name as the domain name. The content of the website caused great concern as it portrayed very graphic pictures of naked men and the invitation, "If you think size matters—then call me."

Unfortunately, child A's phone number was also included on the website. Perhaps luckily, child B was so proud of his endeavours that he could not resist taunting child A at school the next day, as he was keen for his handiwork to be noted. So the outcome of the story was not as serious as it might have been.

Child A had a good relationship with his mother and alerted her to the website. It cannot have been easy for him to do so, because the material was the sort of thing that the average teenager would not want his mother to see or even know existed. The mother acted immediately, and the offending site was, thankfully, withdrawn quickly.

However, the outcome could have been very different. If child A had not felt able to show the material to his mother, nothing would have been done, the child would have been under considerable stress, and the house might have been telephoned. If child B had been even more malicious, he might have alerted other children to the existence of the website, which might in turn have led to taunting at school, and more phone calls. The life of the innocent child could have been made thoroughly miserable. There could well have been a tragic end to the story, and I do not think that I am being over-dramatic when I say that.

The mother of child A came to see me not only to tell me about the offence but to tell me that she was concerned because the police had told her that no crime had technically been committed and that they could not take any action. They mentioned that there was a file of similar offences at the local police headquarters, and that any action would have to be through the civil courts.

There have been other cases of people registering a website in the name of another person for mischievous purposes, although not quite so sinisterly. My hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Mr. Russell) found that a political rival had set up an alternative website containing a host of material that was not approved by him. I hope that it will not be self-interest that moves politicians to act on the matter, but if that gets things moving, that may be for the greater good.

I read recently that an entrepreneur had used the name Billy Connolly to advertise the stud services of his Afghan hound. That sounds like a bit of a laugh, but Billy Connolly did not think so and successfully sued. Unfortunately, not everyone has the money to take legal action. I shall return to that point later.

It appears that the legislation surrounding the internet is a mess. Internet law is largely piecemeal, unknown or unwritten. Few laws deal specifically with the internet, the main exceptions being the Electronic Communications Act 2000 and the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000.

I am not here today to knock the internet. It has wonderful potential as a tool for education and business. It also serves a social function by keeping people in touch cheaply. My daughter even met her current boyfriend via the internet, so it is not all bad. However, the huge potential of this tool must not be jeopardised by the unpleasant use to which some users put it. It is imperative that the internet be allowed to be used to its full, positive potential. As a Liberal Democrat, I believe that freedom is a right, and that it must be guaranteed by any new legislation or guidance on the internet. So legislators must walk the tightrope between freedoms.

The right to free speech and expression must be balanced against the freedom to live free from slander and fear. Many of us believe that the Government have ignored the rights of the individual in recent legislation on the internet. The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act smacked of a patriarchal big brother state and was widely attacked by civil liberties groups when it was introduced.

I want my debate today to be about the freedom of individuals to be free from internet crime, and from harassment or bullying via the internet. I should like to start a continuing debate about how the individual can be protected from a malicious internet user. I have mentioned an example in which a person had no protection. I am also aware of a case in Bournemouth in which a man was jailed for seven and a half years for systematically harassing a young woman. There were similarities with the case that I described earlier; the material placed on the site included invitations to other net users to rape and abuse the victim. The Bournemouth case was slightly different, because haoking was involved and the matter was not dealt with quickly. The victim received abusive e-mails and telephone calls from around the world. The information posted on the website and the subsequent events mean that the victim is still receiving psychiatric treatment.

In general, one can say that what is illegal in current legislation is also illegal on the internet. A case of slander on the internet would take a civil action to correct, and would cost a great deal of time and money. Slander in the printed media is generally the preserve of the rich and famous and directed at the rich and famous. So it is not coincidental that, through civil action, the multi-millionaire pop star Madonna helped in establishing the idea of intellectual property rights over internet domain names. Current legislation is inadequate to protect the rights and dignity of citizens.

Home computer use is now increasingly common. I do not have the most up-to-date figures, but in August last year 14 million people in the United Kingdom were logging on to the internet at home. That constitutes 22 per cent. of the population. Legislation has not kept up with this change.

What can we do about it and what should we do about it? It would be helpful if a way could be found to allow people sole use of their own name. After all, we cannot open a bank account in another per person's name. We need a means of ensuring that someone cannot set up a website in another person's name unless he has clear evidence that that person has given express permission. That simple action would stop cases that arise from simple malice.

It would be helpful also if the Government could increase their efforts to monitor illegal content on the net. I know that that can be rather like looking for a needle in a haystack. However, there are some bodies that deal with the issue. The Internet Watch Foundation is doing a valuable job. It is rightly concentrating its resources on child pornography. The foundation acts as a third party that receives notices of illegal pornography, establishes the illegality of the material and then delivers notices to the internet service providers that ate posting the material to remove it.

The foundation is very good, and a quick-fix solution has been proposed: that it extend its remit to all illegal content. However, that would probably be difficult. I have thought about the matter carefully, and I am not sure that that is the right way to go. Currently, the foundation's staff receive specialist training and guidance from the police to enable them to make decisions on the legal status of material. Child pornography is illegal, full stop.

Claims that material breaches copyright law or is defamatory, slanderous, or incites racial hatred are rarely clear on first inspection. It is never clear whether a court would decide that the information was illegal. For these reasons, I do not think that it would be as simple as it seems to extend the scheme.

The public need an open and well publicised guide that shows how an individual can make complaints about internet sites. That would include investment in resources so that trained staff could examine complaints. It might be useful also to encourage ISPs to include links to a Government website that is dealing with the issue, in almost the same way as the Advertising Standards Agency places advertisements in newspapers and magazines. At the very least, people would they know how easily to complain.

I have been speaking to members of the Internet Service Providers Association, and they, too, are keen to get things right. They would rather the internet be used to its full, positive potential. They want to minimise the dark side of the net. They are calling on the Government to address the issue during the implementation of the e-commerce directive. ISPs believe that they are not liable for content on the internet. They have no obligations to monitor and they are not legally responsible for content.

The ISPs are keen for the current situation to continue, and are calling for the establishment of an improved system for removing illegal material. They need clear guidelines on what is acceptable and what is not. It is a matter that demands much thought and attention.

In a recent civil action—Demon v. Godfrey—the finding was against Demon, an ISP. It failed to remove material from a news group that Dr. Godfrey regarded as defamatory. As Demon did not remove the material, the judge found it in breach of the Defamation Act 1996. Although Demon was shown not to be a publisher, under the 1996 Act it could not claim innocent dissemination, as it had been put on notice of the existence of defamatory material.

A big worry for ISPs is that they do not want to take on the role of judge and jury, which brings us to the thorny issue of takedown. That is a procedure whereby the ISP becomes responsible for removing sites once a complaint has been made against them. That sounds good, and the procedure would have helped my constituent who faced the original problem that I described. However, if ISPs take down they risk legal action by the customer who owns the sites. If they do not take down, they risk legal action by the complainant. The complainant is generally under no obligation to prove the illegality of the material.

The ISP is put in the invidious position of being judge and jury in these matters. Presumably the relevant legislation applies also to companies. I give a hypothetical example that relates to a topical issue. There could be a site attacking Nestle, making allegations that its aggressive marketing of baby milks in the third world was adding to infant mortality. Obviously, the company would not like that. It could easily put pressure on the ISP to remove the site. ISPs are likely to think carefully about who is most likely to sue them. The system is weighted against small charities and pressure groups and favours large multinationals and those with clout, so the issue is therefore developing into an argument about freedom of speech.

Such issues need to be tackled in the short term so that the public are protected from the incidents that I have outlined. I should like a number of things to happen. Individuals should have the right of control over the use of their names as domain names. The Government should consult widely and work with ISPs to establish a clear procedure to deal with notice and takedown, even if, initially, that is a voluntary arrangement. The Government need to co-ordinate notifications to the Internet Service Providers Association, which currently receives different information and guidelines from different Departments. It would be good to see some joined-up thinking.

Once the Government have their own house in order, they should take a lead on co-ordinating international action, as there are wide differences in the way those problems are tackled across the world. For example, in the United States, ISPs remove material only on receipt of a court order, and in Belgium ISPs automatically pass complaints to a judicial police body, which makes all the necessary decisions. The web is world wide, and eventually we must have worldwide thinking. The public need a guarantee of their freedom to use the internet and be free from child pornography, fraud, slander and harassment.

Photo of Mr Paul Boateng Mr Paul Boateng Minister of State, Home Office, Minister of State (Home Office) 2:46, 30 March 2001

May I congratulate the hon. Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley) on obtaining this opportunity in the ballot and succeeding in her representation of the interests and concerns of her young constituent? I am delighted to respond, both as the Minister of State, Home Office and as the Minister with responsibilities for young people.

The hon. Lady rightly raised the issue as one that has had an adverse impact on a young person in her constituency. What happened to him was a form of abuse and, had it not been handled with support from a parent and good sound common sense by the young person himself, it could have had extremely damaging effects.

The issue of the internet and its impact on society today, for good or ill, is one that the Government are addressing. Only on Wednesday, the Home Secretary called together key representatives of the internet industry, child welfare organisations and the police to tackle child abuse and paedophilia, fuelled by a combination of new technologies—digital photography, streaming video, audio data and the internet. We are committed to tackling that abuse of the internet, as we are committed to tackling all criminal misuse of new technologies.

We want to make the United Kingdom the best and safest place in the world to conduct e-commerce and surf the net. There is no doubt in our mind that the growth of the internet offers huge benefits for society, commerce and education. It is rewriting the rules on how we all communicate. Alongside those huge legitimate benefits, the internet offers opportunities for criminals to abuse modern technologies for their own ends. That is why we have introduced legislation on the internet.

I am sorry that the hon. Lady spoiled an otherwise excellent contribution by characterising our legislation in a simplistic and uncharacteristically naive and misplaced way. It is not authoritarian or big brotherish and it is certainly not patriarchal—I think that she used that word. If I may so, that is nonsense; the legislation was none of those things. It deals rigorously and effectively with a genuine mischief. However, the hon. Lady outlined an area worthy of examination, and I shall certainly ensure that the case that she brought to light receives the attention that it deserves.

We should not forget the real benefits that the internet offers. Launching UKonline last September, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister set the Government the objective of working with industry to ensure a safe and secure environment for e-commerce and to help people trust the internet. We want to work in partnership with UK industry to clean up the net and make it safe for UK users.

Should we use the criminal law to do that? The Government, in common with many other Governments, take the view that what is illegal offline should be illegal online. Possession and distribution of child pornography is possession and distribution of child pornography, whether that is done on paper, by post, electronically or by e-mail. Fraud is fraud, whether it is a newspaper advertisement inducing gullible investors—there are always some of them about—or a website that seeks to do the same and entrap the same sort of person, preying on a combination of greed and gullibility.

Technology changes, and we want to keep the criminal law technology-neutral; otherwise we risk coming back to the House every time some new invention intended for some harmless pursuit is used and abused by innovative criminals to carry out their criminal purpose. The challenge for Government is to ensure that harmful and unlawful activity is addressed by the criminal law, however that activity is conducted. We think that we have the balance right, but that is not to say that we are complacent. The hon Lady's case is an interesting one; we need to keep offences under constant review, and examine them to see whether further action can be or needs to he taken to strengthen the law, when offences are conducted wholly or in part using computers or computer networks.

We have already acted in a number of areas. I took the Criminal Justice and Court Services Act 2000 through the House. In January, we increased the maximum penalties for child pornography offences—for possession from six months to five years, and for production and distribution offences from three years' imprisonment to 10 years.

We raised the age threshold in the Indecency with Children Act 1960 from 14 to 16. Conspiracy, incitement or attempts to commit gross indecency with a child under 16 are all offences under the Indecency with Children Act, whether they are committed over the internet or not. They carry a penalty of up to 10 years' imprisonment.

Safety in chat rooms is another complex issue, and a crucial one for parents. The hon. Lady mentioned that her own daughter had entered into a happy and successful relationship with a boyfriend through the internet. The outcome may have been happy for her, but, sadly, that is not always the case. The recent report from the Internet Crime Forum, "Chat Wise, Street Wise", made a number of recommendations for industry, Government and children's charities to consider. The recommendations suggest practical ways to protect children from the risks that chat rooms can pose, the most extreme being exposure to paedophiles who will, as we have seen, incite young people to go against all their instincts to secret assignations, with the most appalling consequences.

Some seek to add "entice" to "incite" in the 1960 Act and widen the scope of the offence. My advice is that the change would not achieve that end. The courts have held that the word "incite" involves some form of persuasion or encouragement. It does not matter that the incitement is unsuccessful. Courts would also be bound to give "entice" its ordinary meaning— to persuade by the offer of pleasure or reward". In other words, the ambit of the offence would not be extended at all.

We cannot be complacent. Protecting children from sexual abuse and the theft of their childhood and their innocence, and breaking what can become a cycle of abuse as the abused become abusers, must be a clear priority for Government, and it is. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary took decisive action this week and established the taskforce, which is chaired by my noble Friend Lord Bassam. I shall ensure that the hon. Lady's case is referred to it. It includes representatives of the internet industry, child welfare organisations, the police, the Government and others. It will review internet content rating systems, develop a kite marking scheme for internet chat rooms that provide child-friendly services, develop and promote a safe surfing education and awareness campaign for parents and children, and enhance co-operation between police and communications services providers in the investigation of crime. It will also review existing legislation to ensure that it continues to protect children from grooming and other forms of abuse, and that it keeps in step with changes in technology. That is where the case raised by the hon. Lady comes in, because, as she told us, her constituent experienced a form of abuse. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will review the work of the taskforce in the summer.

We have legislation in place to deal with crimes against computers, such as hacking and the spreading of computer viruses. The Computer Misuse Act 1990 is now 11 years old, but it was ahead of its time and it has stood the test of time. We want more use to be made of that legislation now. We have ensured that the Public Order Act 1986 can deal with the distribution of racist material, whether over the internet or by pen and paper.

The UK is not an island in the electronic world, however much it is one in geographic terms. We have recognised the threat that electronic attack poses to our critical national information infrastructure. That is why we established the national infrastructure security co-ordination centre to work with Departments and private sector organisations to protect critical national infrastructure against electronic attack.

We know that there is no room for complacency in these matters, on which we are working closely with our international partners in the G8 group. The Minister of State, Home Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Mrs. Roche) went to meet G8 Ministers, specifically to work with our partners to develop co-operation in tackling child pornography on the internet. We are investing in law enforcement to ensure that personnel are properly trained and equipped to investigate and prosecute high-tech criminals. We are also taking steps to ensure that we keep apace with technological development. We must give law enforcement agencies the statutory provisions that are necessary to enable them to investigate high-tech crimes. That is what lay behind the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, about which I hope the hon. Lady will change her views.

It is our objective to ensure that any victim of a crime in which computers were involved, be it a multinational corporation or an individual, can report that crime to police in the knowledge that it will be dealt with effectively and professionally by officers who are trained and equipped to deal with the task.

I must conclude my remarks as I began them. Child abuse on the internet is deplorable. It is also depraved in every sense of the word. We owe it to victims to locate and prosecute the abusers and the people who use the internet for criminal purposes. We owe it to children to protect them from abuse of the technology. The Government, industry, parents and carers must together maintain the real and sustained progress that we have made in tackling criminal abuse of the internet, so that as a society we can reap the full economic and social benefits and so that our children can surf the internet in safety.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for securing the debate and I fully appreciate the action taken by her young constituent to gain some protection for himself. That was entirely commendable and we shall ensure that the case is referred to the taskforce, so that it can learn the appropriate lessons.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at one minute to Three o'clock.