Online Harms

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:50 pm on 19th November 2020.

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Photo of Matt Warman Matt Warman The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport 3:50 pm, 19th November 2020

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend Jeremy Wright and Dame Diana Johnson for securing this debate. [Interruption.] Wait for it; I entirely sympathise with the point made by my hon. Friend Fiona Bruce in business questions. The little time that the House has spent on this enormous subject today could never have done it justice, and it certainly does not reflect the huge importance that the Government ascribe to better protecting children and adults from online harm, while, of course, balancing that against the precious freedom of expression that we all hold so dear.

We know that we can and must do more in this vital area. Covid-19 has emphasised how much we rely on the web and on social media, and how vital it is for firms to apply to their users as soon as possible the duty of care that has been discussed this afternoon. Platforms can and must do more to protect those users, and particularly children, from the worst of the internet, which is sadly all too common today. The Government will ensure that firms set out clearly what legal content is acceptable on their platforms and ensure, via a powerful and independent regulator, that they enforce that consistently and effectively. Codes of practice will set out what is acceptable, on topics from hate crime to eating disorders, so that the networks themselves no longer make the rules.

I pay tribute to the many fine contributions that we have heard today, and I pay particular tribute to the work of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kenilworth and Southam, the former Secretary of State responsible for the White Paper. I reassure him that the Government’s forthcoming online harms legislation will establish that new duty of care; that platforms will be held to account for the content that appears on their services; and that legislation will establish a systemic approach that is resilient in the face of a host of challenges, from online bullying to predatory behaviour.

Earlier this year, as my right hon. and learned Friend mentioned, we published the initial response, making clear the direction of travel. We will publish the full Government response to the online harms White Paper this year. We will set out further detail of our proposals, and alongside that we will publish interim voluntary codes of practice on terrorist content and child sexual exploitation and abuse. The full Government response will be followed by legislation, which will be ready early next year. I know that there is huge concern about the time that this is taking, but we also know that it is critical that we get this right, and we will do that early in the new year. Covid emphasises the need to get on with this. We want to introduce effective legislation that makes platforms more responsible for the safety of their users and underpins the continued growth of the digital sector, because, as he said, responsible business is good for business.

The White Paper also set out the prevalence of illegal content and activity online, with a particular focus on the most serious of those offences, namely child sexual exploitation and abuse. Protecting children online from CSEA is crucial. Alongside the full Government response, we will publish interim codes on tackling the use of the internet by terrorists and those engaged in child sexual exploitation and abuse. We want to ensure that companies take action now to tackle content that threatens our national security and the physical safety of children, and that is what we will do.

I am sure that many Members here today have been the target of online abuse or know someone who has. We have heard powerful stories. Close to half of adults in the UK say that they have seen hateful content online in the past year. I want to make it clear today that online abuse targeted towards anyone is unacceptable; as with so many other areas, what is illegal offline is also illegal online.

Online abuse can have a huge impact on people’s lives, and is often targeted at the most vulnerable in our society. Our approach to tackling online harms will support more users to participate in online discussions by reducing the risk of bullying or being attacked on the basis of their identity. All in-scope companies will be expected to tackle illegal content and activity, including offences targeted at users on the basis of their sex, and to have effective systems in place to deal with such content. My Department is working closely with the Law Commission, which is leading a review of the law related to abusive and offensive online communications. The commission will issue final recommendations in 2021 that we will carefully consider.

It is important, though, to note that the aim of this regime is not to tackle individual pieces of content. We will not prevent adults from accessing or posting legal content, nor require companies to remove specific pieces of legal content. Instead, the regulatory regime will be focused on the systems and processes implemented by companies to address harmful content. That is why it will have the extensive effect that so many Members have called for today.

I will deal briefly with anti-vaccination content. As we have heard today, many Members are concerned about this issue. As the Prime Minister made clear in the House yesterday, as we move into the next phase of vaccine roll-out, we have secured a major commitment from Facebook, Twitter and Google to the principle that no company should profit from or promote any anti-vaccine disinformation, and that they will respond to flagged content more swiftly. The platforms have also agreed to work with health authorities to promote scientifically accurate messages, and we will continue to engage with them. We know that anti-vaccination content could cost lives and we will not do anything that could allow it to proliferate. We will also continue work on the media literacy strategy to allow people better to understand what they see online.

Let me briefly address a few points that were raised in the debate. On product safety, the Office for Product Safety and Standards has a clear remit to lead the Government’s efforts to tackle the sale of unsafe goods online, and my officials are working with their counterparts in other Departments to deliver a coherent pro-innovation approach to governing digital technologies, and they will continue to do so. The Home Office is engaging with the IWF, including on funding. On age verification, the Government are committed to ensuring that children are protected from accessing inappropriate harmful content online, including online pornography. The judicial review mentioned by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kenilworth and Southam prevents me from saying more, but the Queen’s Speech on 19 December included a commitment to improve internet safety for all and to make the UK the safest place in the world to go online.

Tackling online harms is a key priority for this Government in order to make the internet a safer place for us all. I close by reiterating how vital it is that we get this legislation right. This Government will not shy away from ensuring that we do, and that we do so quickly.