Online Harms

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:09 pm on 19th November 2020.

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Photo of Catherine McKinnell Catherine McKinnell Chair, Petitions Committee, Chair, Petitions Committee 3:09 pm, 19th November 2020

This vital work is indeed taking far too long, and so much so that the Petitions Committee has launched a new inquiry on tackling online abuse following up our report in the last Parliament and looking at potential solutions for reducing crime and preventing it. Although the Government’s response to our previous report was positive, regrettably its online harms White Paper failed to address most of our concerns in relation to the impact on disabled people. The new inquiry will therefore continue to scrutinise the Government’s response to online abuse and press Ministers on the action that needs to be taken. We would welcome evidence to our inquiry from campaigners, legal professionals, social media companies and members of the public.

I want to address as well some of the most troubling material available online—material that has too often spilled over into the offline world with tragic consequences. From your internet browser today you could access video that shows graphic footage of real-event stabbings before alleging that the attack was, in fact, a Jewish plot. If you were so inclined, you could watch a five-hour-long video that alleges a Jewish conspiracy to introduce communism around the world—10,000 people already have. I could go on. These videos and others like it are easily discoverable on some of the so-called alternative platforms that have become safe havens for terrorist propaganda, hate material and covid-19 disinformation, so it is crucial that when the Government finally bring their online harms Bill forward, it has to have teeth.

The White Paper proposes establishing a new duty of care for users, overseen by an independent regulator, making it clear that fulfilling a duty of care means following codes of practice. The Government have rightly proposed two statutory codes—on sexual exploitation and abuse and on terrorism. Will the Minister now commit to bringing forward another code of practice on hate crime and wider harms? Without such a code, any duty of care for users will be limited to what the site’s terms and conditions allow. Terms and conditions are insufficient, as the Government acknowledge; they can be patchy and poorly applied.

The Antisemitism Policy Trust, which provides the secretariat to the all-party parliamentary group against antisemitism, which I co-chair, has produced evidence outlining how hateful online materials can lead to violent hate crime offline. A code of practice on hate crime, with systems-level advice to start-ups and minimum standards for companies will go some way towards creating a safer world. There is much more in the Bill that needs serious consideration, but as a minimum we need to see a code of practice for hate crime brought forward and given the same status as that for child sexual exploitation and abuse and terrorism, and I hope today that the Minister can give us some reassurance that this will be taken seriously.