Digital Economy Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:26 pm on 13th September 2016.

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Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Chair, Women and Equalities Committee 2:26 pm, 13th September 2016

There is much to welcome in the Bill. Mr Wright mentioned the EU, and we should not forget that it was only in 2012 that this Government roll-out of superfast broadband was stuck in state aid bureaucracy; one of my first meetings when I was Secretary of State was with the Brussels officials who were deciding to stand in our way. It required quite a large handbag to get that moving, but the tenacity of the Department and, in particular, of Broadband Delivery UK since then means that now more than 90% of our premises have access to superfast broadband. The Bill will give everyone the right to fast broadband in the future, and it deserves all our support. I am glad to hear Labour’s Front-Benchers say that they will be supporting it.

As the Secretary of State said in her opening remarks, at the heart of the Bill is the importance of shaping our digital world for the future and of a digitally engaged citizen. We cannot allow this to be a missed opportunity; if we are to have a healthy digital economy in the future, we need to tackle the real concerns of digital consumers and the real concerns about online abuse. If we do not do that, some people will choose to absent themselves from the online world, and I do not believe that that is right.

I will focus my comments on that aspect of the Bill, having heard many colleagues talk about a range of other issues. The Bill needs to include a clear definition of what constitutes online abuse. The criminal law is trying to tackle online abuse with a complex set of laws that predate the digital age. The number of convictions under part 1 of the Malicious Communications Act 1988 has increased tenfold over the past decade, but before prosecutions can be successfully brought, we require proof of an intention to cause distress and of gross offensiveness. The current level of prosecutions therefore probably very much underestimates the real problem that is there.

It is right that we protect freedom of expression, and that argument is made strongly when we legislate in this space, but there has never been an unfettered right to freedom of expression; with that comes responsibility, and we need to recognise that in law. The Crown Prosecution Service has used guidelines to help clarify the situation, which probably indicates to us that there are some causes for concern, because there is no substitute for making sure that the statutory provisions are clear. As the Law Commission said, there is a clear public interest in tackling online abuse, and that has to be done through clear, predictable legal provisions. This Bill provides an opportunity for such clarification, to tackle online abuse more effectively, and I hope the Minister who responds to the debate will include in his remarks what the Government’s response will be.

There is an opportunity for better support to be provided to victims of online abuse, and I applaud the work of hon. Members who are here today, and of Victim Support and others, who have been tackling this issue. It is right that the Government have taken a thought-leading position on making illegal the posting of revenge pornography online, but we need to go further. We have seen more than 200 prosecutions for revenge pornography, but hundreds of victims are still fearful or unwilling to come forward. More than 1,700 cases of revenge pornography have been reported to the police in the past year, but its victims are three times more likely than other victims to withdraw or to withhold support for police action. The Bill needs to recognise that victims of online abuse and the appalling offence of revenge pornography should be afforded the same right of anonymity as victims of other sexual offences.

I am really pleased to see a commitment to tackle access to underage pornography in the Bill. Obviously, it was in the Conservative party manifesto, but it is a welcome provision none the less. I applaud the Government on the stand that they are taking here. There is not enough time to go into the details of that provision now, but I hope that the Minister will carefully consider, both now and in Committee, the NSPCC’s call for more robust sanctions. We need to look at expanding the role proposed for the age verification regulator beyond commercial sites to include peer-to-peer and other communication products where pornography is routinely shown and distributed.

I realise that there are problems with regard to those who are legally accessing such products, but we must take account of the fact that, by the time children reach the age of 12, more than one in four will have already accessed online pornography. I am talking not about the sort of stuff that is on the shelves of our local newsagents, but about what others would call hardcore pornography. We tackled that issue in the Women and Equalities Committee report on sexual harassment in schools, which was published today. In it, experts widely cited the increased access to online pornography by children as helping to fuel the increase in sexual harassment and abuse among children in schools, and this needs to be taken seriously.

There is one other area on which I hope to encourage the Minister to reflect, and that is the impact on the police. The chief of the College of Policing, Alex Marshall, has said that social media complaints now make up half of all calls to the police. That is an extraordinary fact, yet the Bill makes no mention of how we can lay off some of the charges that are being incurred by the police when they deal with those who produce products that elicit this sort of illegal activity and concern from our constituents and who make a healthy profit out of their online activities. We need to consider a swift plan of action and to put in place a levy to fund additional police costs if online abuse is not tackled speedily.

The online industry is healthy, but it needs to tackle the abuses if we are to move forward in a healthy fashion. We must be clear that we will not tolerate the sort of abuse that has become routine in the past. We need to ensure that there is a co-ordinated approach to the reporting of online abuse, that we design out such abuse from products from the get go and that there is quick action to remove and sanction those who commit online abuse. Indeed, if a code of practice for the industry is not put in place voluntarily, perhaps one should be put in place with a bit of force.

My right hon. Friend that Secretary of State knows more than many other Ministers about the impact on victims of online abuse, particularly domestic violence victims. We cannot let the Bill be a missed opportunity to encourage more digitally engaged citizens, but we must ensure that we keep those digitally engaged citizens safe and that we tackle the concerns and fears that are now starting to make up a significant part of our postbags.