Online Harms

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:26 pm on 19th November 2020.

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Photo of Elliot Colburn Elliot Colburn Conservative, Carshalton and Wallington 3:26 pm, 19th November 2020

In my short contribution, I wish to focus on two areas: the need for this legislation to have sufficient teeth and for clear definitions of what constitutes an online harm, which many of my constituents have been in touch with me about. I hear the criticism and concern that an online harms Bill could be overreaching and damage freedom of expression, but that should not stop the Government going ahead and trying to make the internet a safer place.

One of the best ways the Government could do that is by providing a clearer steer as to what constitutes “harm”. As we have heard, and as I think we are all agreed on in this House, high on the agenda must be a robust set of actions and consequences in place when content relating to terrorism, child abuse and equally abhorrent crimes is not taken down by social media companies. We can safely say that we, as Members of Parliament, know full well what a vile place the internet can be, given that we are sometimes on the receiving end of the most vile and horrific abuse. I was subjected to homophobic abuse during the election campaign in December last year.

Any online harms Bill must therefore be sufficiently defined and powerful enough to consider how we can protect people against some of the harmful content available online. I wish to go through some examples that have been raised with me by constituents. They include the fact that almost a quarter of children and young people who sadly lost their lives to suicide had previously searched the internet for suicide-related content; that one in five children had reported being victims of cyber-bullying; that social media companies were not just ignoring but refusing to take down content from so-called “conversion therapy” organisations, which leads so many lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people to consider self-harm or even suicide; that one in 14 adults were experiencing threats to share intimate images of themselves; that one in 10 women were being threatened by an ex-partner and going on to feel suicidal; that there was a higher prevalence of abuse among those with protected characteristics, be they women, religious minorities, LGBT+, black and minority ethnic or disabled people; that there was the issue of distorted body image among girls; and so much more.

We have seen the unwillingness of social media companies to act, which is why further regulation is necessary in this area, but it must be backed up not only by a regulator that has the teeth to act, but by proper education on safe and proper internet use, as regulation alone will not solve the problem. If the Government do get this right, they have the opportunity, probably a once-in-a-generation one, to make the internet a safer but no less free place to be.