Online Harms

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:23 pm on 19th November 2020.

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Photo of Robert Largan Robert Largan Conservative, High Peak 3:23 pm, 19th November 2020

The internet has changed the world. In the past, typical hate crime took place on the street and involved a small number of people: the perpetrator, the victim and perhaps a handful of witnesses. The internet has changed all that. Now, when hate crime takes place online, it is seen and shared by thousands within minutes. The hatred is amplified and echoed in a toxic spiral that incites others to go further and further, sometimes spilling over into real life with devastating consequences. We are seeing the impact the amplification of hate is having in real numbers. In the first six months of this year, the Community Security Trust recorded 789 antisemitic incidents across the UK. In 2019, it recorded a record annual total of 1,813. That is just one particular kind of hate directed at one tiny minority community.

I have seen this at first hand, for reasons I can never quite fathom. Last year, one then Labour councillor decided to start bombarding me with abusive messages over several months, accusing me of eating babies, claiming I was linked to Benjamin Netanyahu, repeatedly sending me messages with images of the crucifixion and images of pigs, songs referring to the Wandering Jew, photos of himself dressed in orthodox Jewish clothing, and repeatedly changing my name to Herr Largaman or Herr Larganberg. These incidents are relatively minor compared with what others have had to face, particularly women and many Members of this House. I pay tribute to the Community Security Trust for the amazing work it does, as well as to the Jewish Leadership Council and the Antisemitism Policy Trust, but the fact that such groups have to exist underlines why this Bill is so important.

We need to grasp the nettle and update our laws to reflect the new reality of the online world, and to make certain that this legislation is sufficiently strong and effective. In particular, I urge the Government to carefully consider the issue of anonymity. Many extremists hide behind a keyboard, masking their true identity to unleash abuse and spread false information. That has been facilitated by the growth of alternative social media platforms that anyone can access and post on anonymously. As a result, we have seen them turn into hotbeds of incitement and radicalisation. Some platforms even allowed the live-streaming of atrocities such as the murder of 51 worshippers at two mosques by white supremacists in New Zealand. It is important that we recognise that there is a place for anonymity, particularly for whistleblowers, victims of domestic abuse and people living under authoritarian regimes, but that there is a sensible compromise, which I hope the Government include in the Bill.

When I worked in financial services, we always had to carry out extensive “know your client” checks, as part of an effort to prevent fraud and money laundering. The same concept should apply to the online world. Firm penalties should be in place for companies breaching the duty of care—a modest fine will barely affect those companies—and there has to be individual liability for senior management in extreme cases. Again, that is not a new concept, as it already exists in financial services and in health and safety.