My Lords, most of the focus in the media and in Parliament about online harms has rightly been on children and young people. However, I suggest that government, social media companies and the new regulator also think about people with learning disabilities and other vulnerable adults. I remind noble Lords that Article 9 of the UNCRPD requires states to enable disabled people to participate fully and to have access on an equal basis; for example, to information and communication technologies.
According to research published by Ofcom this year, about 70% of the 1.5 million people with learning disabilities in the United Kingdom have a smartphone and a laptop or computer. While this is significantly lower than the proportion of the general population, it still indicates that a majority are active online. For those who go online, there will be clear benefits.
Having a learning disability often means that people have fewer friends and fewer opportunities to socialise than the general population. Social media could be an effective way to connect with others and to build friendships and relationships with like-minded people. However, many have not enjoyed these good outcomes but instead have had distressing experiences.
Many have been financially exploited by people who prey on the fact they have an intellectual disability and are less able to spot a scam. Scammers might pose as a business offering a product or service, as a health professional or as an individual offering friendship or a romantic relationship. This type of “befriending” is often referred to as “mate crime” in the disability sector—there is a tragic history of this occurring both online and offline—and is intended to exploit them financially, physically and sexually. This type of online grooming might begin with the inappropriate sharing of images. Some people with a learning disability, particularly those with limited support, find it difficult to recognise that it is inappropriate and dangerous; nor do they know where to seek help.
Such negative experiences may lead people simply to retreat from social media platforms. As part of the online harms White Paper consultation, I suggest that government need to engage directly with people with learning disabilities as well as with the organisations that represent them, such as the Royal Mencap Society, Dimensions and the Foundation for People with Learning Disabilities.
The 2018 digital charter had several principles, one of which was that people should understand the rules that apply to them when they are online. This raises questions about whether some people with learning disabilities do not have the mental capacity to use the internet safely and what measures social media providers may need to take to make the internet safe and inclusive.
In a recent judgment in February, the honourable Mr Justice Cobb in the case Re A (Capacity: Social Media and Internet Use: Best Interests) commented:
“Online abuse of disabled people has become, and is, an issue of considerable and increasing national and international concern”.
He concluded that A, a man with learning disability, must be able to understand that information and images he shared on the internet might be shared more widely, including with people he did not know; that privacy settings might enable him to limit what is shared; that other people might be upset or offended by offensive material that he had shared; that some people he met online might not be who they said they were; and that someone who called themselves a “friend” on social media might not be friendly. He also suggested that some people whom he did not otherwise know might pose a risk to him.
It was a very thoughtful judgment, which concluded that A did not have capacity to use the internet safely. Mr Justice Cobb also made the point:
“The use of the internet and the use of social media are inextricably linked; the internet is the communication platform on which social media operates … It would, in my judgment, be impractical and unnecessary to assess capacity separately in relation to using the internet for social communications as to using it for entertainment, education, relaxation, and/or for gathering information”.
I would add that access to the internet is also needed for, for example, telecare, which is important for many disabled people.
I, too, welcome the proposed “duty of care” for social media companies. This must include reference to vulnerable adults, including those with learning disabilities. Social media companies have powerful algorithms working to clamp down on copyright and other infringements and it makes sense that these should also protect people from abuse, scams and grooming.
The consultation states:
“The regulator will also have broader responsibilities to promote education and awareness-raising about online safety”.
I strongly suggest that central to this is ensuring that people with learning disabilities are also provided with the skills, tools and knowledge to keep themselves safe online as well as to know where to go to report incidents and get the right guidance and support. Only with this education will people be able to understand online safety and be included in this new technology.
I look to the Minister for an assurance that, in creating this new framework, government will include the needs of vulnerable adults in its scope so that social media companies and others will work together to protect people with learning disabilities from abuse, scams and grooming.