Online Content: Crime

Oral Answers to Questions — Home Department – in the House of Commons on 25th February 2019.

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Photo of Rebecca Pow Rebecca Pow Conservative, Taunton Deane

What steps he is taking to ensure that tech companies tackle serious crimes perpetrated on their platforms.

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace Minister of State (Home Office) (Security)

Tackling serious crime online is one of our highest priorities. We are increasing our investment in law enforcement and will set out plans to legislate in the online harms White Paper, which will set clear responsibilities for tech companies to keep UK citizens safe online, including through protection from serious online crime.

Photo of Rebecca Pow Rebecca Pow Conservative, Taunton Deane

Following an 18-month investigation into fake news and disinformation by the Select Committee on Digital, Culture, Media and Sport—I was proud to be part of that—it has published its recommendations, one of which called for comprehensive new regulations. The main detail, however, was to have an independent regulator to ensure that social media companies are forced to take down harmful comment. Does the Minister agree with the recommendations, and does he also agree that speed is of the essence?

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace Minister of State (Home Office) (Security)

My hon. Friend highlights the very good report produced by the Committee, which was full of really good ideas. I do not want to anticipate the online harms White Paper and what may be consulted on—the White Paper will be part of a consultation—but I totally agree with her that speed of action is incredibly important. It is about time for these big, hugely profitable tech companies to take responsibility, step up to the plate and do something about this.

Photo of John Woodcock John Woodcock Independent, Barrow and Furness

At the moment tech companies are apparently taking down masses of material, but would it not be much more helpful if they were automatically required to pass on to law enforcement agencies the IP addresses and registration details of accounts that abuse their own practices?

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace Minister of State (Home Office) (Security)

The hon. Gentleman highlights something that is already the case for child sexual exploitation images in the US, and we get up to 4,000 referrals a month from US and Canadian ISPs where that has been identified. Exploring broadening that out would be welcome, but we should not forget that a large part of what these companies do is about making profit. The algorithms in their platforms are about hooking people into watching more and more, and they need to get to the heart of their business case as well as their technology so that we can deal with the challenges.

Photo of Charlie Elphicke Charlie Elphicke Conservative, Dover

One of my constituents, a teenager whose brother was murdered, has recently been targeted by vile abuse online from a person claiming to be the murderer of her brother. What is the Home Office doing to ensure that social media companies such as Snapchat do much more to help to catch trolls making such malicious communications, who think they can hide behind the keyboard and get away with it?

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace Minister of State (Home Office) (Security)

I hope that the online harms White Paper will address many of those issues, and I look forward to my hon. Friend’s contribution to it.

Photo of Stewart McDonald Stewart McDonald Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Defence)

Too often what happens is that the content that is uploaded does not break the law, but it leads to the law being broken, and is often followed by harassment campaigns against individuals. Too often Facebook is not just a safe space for that stuff—which it is—but actually the weapon of choice. When will we get legislation to properly regulate companies such as Facebook that, from what I can see, do not really give a damn?

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace Minister of State (Home Office) (Security)

First, the online harms White Paper consultation, which as I have said will be published imminently, will be a chance for all of us to contribute to the best policy tools to deal with that threat. Secondly, we need to recognise that under EU law we currently have the issue of mere conduit, whereby one of the statutory defences for the companies is, “We are just a conduit for this material: we do not take responsibility for it.” That is why issues such as duty of care are an attractive policy model that we should look at adopting as a potential solution to the problem.

Photo of Will Quince Will Quince Conservative, Colchester

Given the dangers our children are exposed to on social media platforms, does my right hon. Friend agree that those platforms should look to fund education seminars in schools on how to stay safe online?

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace Minister of State (Home Office) (Security)

My hon. Friend makes a really good point. Some of the large companies already do that: Google, for example, goes to many constituencies and makes presentations in primary schools. I would recommend that all hon. Members approach the company and ask it to come to their constituencies. I went to a session in my constituency which made a difference for young people in staying safe online. But there is a lot more companies could do, and that is what we will push for in the online harms White Paper.