Social Networking Websites

Private Members' Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 3:15 pm on 5th February 2013.

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Debate resumed on amendment to motion:

That this Assembly notes the growing number of people and hate groups who use social networking websites to verbally abuse other users; further notes the use of these sites by sexual predators to groom victims; and calls on the Minister of Justice to explore the introduction of better regulation of these sites and tougher penalties for people who use the sites to commit crime; and further calls for additional policing resources so that online internet hate crimes are able to be fully investigated. — [Ms McCorley]

Which amendment was:

"; and further calls for additional policing resources so that online internet hate crimes are able to be fully investigated".— [Mr McDevitt]

Photo of Alex Easton Alex Easton DUP

The internet is one of the most influential inventions for this generation.  The immediate access to any information you can imagine has changed our society.  People now have access to information whenever and wherever they want.  With the advent of the smartphone, tablets and laptops we really are the most accessible we have ever been in our generation.

Social networks make up a vast proportion of our accessibility.  As an elected representative, social media allows me to be in close contact with my electorate.  They can post on my walls any concerns that they have or ask questions, and I am able to update them on what I am doing in their interests.  That is a positive and important role of social media.

Sadly, as technology has marched ahead, our legislation has not quite kept pace with the changes.  There appears to be a large amount of confusion as to what comments risk prosecution and what is simply the right to freedom of speech.  That confusion is before we enter the world where people are intentionally using such sites for illegal reasons such as sexual grooming of our children.

When I was growing up, home was a sanctuary, where a child could go and feel safe.  A person could lock their door and leave the world outside.  The rise in technology means that children and younger people no longer have that sanctuary.  If they are being bullied at school, that bullying can continue in the home through social media.

Although many sites have age restrictions, many young people are well-trained in how to get around them.  I know of a six-year-old who has social media accounts and whose parents are not the most knowledgeable about technology.  Obviously, that is a major safety risk.  Nobody would leave a 10-year-old in the centre of Bangor and tell them to talk to anyone they want, but with social media there is a risk that they will be doing just that.

Just because they are physically in their bedrooms or the living room does not mean that they are not conversing with strangers, giving potential identifying information such as school names or how they get home from school to people, the majority of whom I would hope to be upstanding citizens.  However, it takes only one to pose a real danger.

I know of one headmaster of a secondary school who claims that 90% of the incidents around bullying now occurs through the use of technology and who advises the parents of children entering year 8 that if their children have Facebook or Twitter accounts they should delete them, as they cause more trouble in the school than anything else.

If schools are noticing that, so should our society, so that we can adequately protect our young, vulnerable people.  Nasty comments, hate sites and people telling other young people to kill themselves on sites such as Twitter or Facebook are all too common.  Just as victims of traditional bullying often are fearful of telling an adult about such bullying, the same is true of internet bullying.

Added into the mix are apps such as ask my penguin, where people get to leave anonymous comments about a person, encouraging people to maybe say something that they would think twice about saying to someone's face.  It is easy to forget that there is a real human behind the screen reading comments, and so-called keyboard warriors may not always realise the impact that some of their words will have on the person at whom they are directed.

Predators have always seen the potential of using the internet to commit their crimes.  Again, they can see a young person who is lonely, has low self-esteem and appears to have a high level of reliance.  They then exploit the information that that young person places on their social media website to build a relationship with them and to distance them from the people in their real life.  There is little risk to the predator as many young people access such sites in their bedrooms, away from their parents' eyes.  Also, parents are not always up to date with technology, which leaves young people vulnerable and at risk. 

Over the past number of weeks and months, we have seen the positive effects of social media in raising awareness of issues, but we have also seen the downside, with two young sisters taking their lives over alleged remarks made on social media.

Without clear legislation and strong punishment for those who transgress these laws, we will continue to have this grey uncertainty over what can and cannot be typed.  Some of the videos that go viral on Facebook, for example, have bestiality implied in them, which young people can watch.  We have sites where young girls aged 14 and 15 are wearing very little — less than what you would see on a beach — while sites that promote and give advice on issues such as breastfeeding are closed down and pictures are deleted. 

We need to end this confusion now and make people understand that the premise that sticks and stones may break our bones but words can never hurt us is no longer correct when it comes to the world of social media.

Photo of Jim Wells Jim Wells DUP

Last August, I made a comment known on a particular moral issue that I felt strongly about.  That obviously touched a raw nerve with many hundreds of people throughout Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom.  I was relatively new to social media and the internet, though I have a member of staff who is much younger than me and is an authority on the issue.  So, I have come to Twitter and Facebook only within the past 18 months. 

The torrent of abuse, bad language and offensive comments that I received over the web in those few weeks was very disturbing.  There were abusive phrases thrown at me but, on a lighter note, the one I found most offensive was the accusation that I was wearing a wig, which is not true.  The rest of them were a wee bit more serious than that.  I had been given an insight into the malicious power of social media.

Someone showed me a facility on Twitter where you can follow what people are saying about you but they do not know you can see that.  You put your name in, and you can see what is going on behind your back.  If what was coming to me publicly was offensive, what was being said behind my back was absolutely appalling. 

I am a politician, and I have been in this business 31 years.  Therefore, to my mind, me complaining about that is like the captain of a P&O ferry complaining about rough seas; it comes with the territory, and I have to accept it.  However, I had read enough that, had I been someone considerably younger or someone with mental health problems, I certainly would have been pushed over the edge. 

There is something about Twitter, Facebook and the internet that takes normal, rational human beings and turns them into, as someone said, internet warriors — people who lose all sense of responsibility, who believe that they are anonymous and can say what they like and who can issue desperately offensive and downright insulting comments. 

I have learned my lesson.  I have blocked an awful lot of people.  I had people writing to me on Facebook saying that they would never, ever vote for me again whom I traced to Brighton, east Croydon and Suffolk.  I wrote to them and asked how they could vote for me, if they lived in Suffolk, and they went quiet.  Another gentleman came on to me, very offensively, and said that had voted for me for all his life and that he would never vote for me again, following my comment on the moral issue.  I checked the electoral register for South Down; he was not on it.  I went back and asked him how he could say that he would never vote for me again, when he was not on the register.  He went silent as well.  It transpires that many of those people do not live in Northern Ireland, but they can be deeply offensive to those of us who do.

The lesson is that, although the internet can be tremendously advantageous and can bring many wonderful benefits, it is a very, very dangerous place.  If it is dangerous for an obscure Back-Bencher from south Down, aged 55, how much worse is it for a young person who does not have the experience of life to deal with these insults?

I believe that we need to take the media a lot more seriously, and I think that the solution is simple.  The solution is that you opt in.  If you want to have offensive material, violence or very graphic sexual imagery, you opt in to receive it, and the rest of us throughout the country can simply go along and have normal access to the multimedia, which will enable us to carry out all the functions we want to, such as e-mails, etc, and to carry on our business.  Those who wish to go the step further should have to opt in to something more serious.  That means that a 14-year-old will find great difficulty in logging on to perverted sexual activity or graphic violence on the media.  That is not going to restrict the rights of any individual in Northern Ireland, because those who wish to move up to a higher tier, as it were, for whatever reason, would be able to do so. 

We simply cannot allow a free-for-all in the media, regardless of whether it is Facebook, Bebo, Twitter, etc.  We cannot allow a free-for-all that exposes our children and those who are, perhaps, depressed or have mental health difficulties to the awful world out there of people who, frankly, are out to cause the maximum hurt and offence.

I will leave my comments at that.  That is from my bitter experience.  I am a lot older, wiser and more knowledgeable, and I will certainly be a lot more cautious in my use of the media in the future.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

Mr Deputy Speaker, anyone reading the motion would find it difficult to disagree with anything that it says, because it outlines a number of issues.  I will pick up a few words in it.  It asks that the Assembly:

"notes the use of these sites by sexual predators to groom victims".

That is an obvious reference to the hideous practice of paedophilia.  Anyone reading that would think, "Yes.  Someone putting that forward is obviously exercised about that and wants to do all that can be done about it."  Yet, the staggering thing about this debate, for me, is that those who tabled the motion are the very people who stand in the way of something being done about organised paedophilia across the United Kingdom and wider afield.  We saw that no later than yesterday, when they took the stand of blockading the route to the establishment of the National Crime Agency (NCA), designed to deal with those very issues. 

Therefore, when you factor that in, it is very hard to escape the conclusion that the motion is an exercise in cynical populism by those who stand exposed as being shallow in their views and, indeed, fraudulent in that view, because they are the very people who want to stop anything effective, realistic or meaningful being done about it at a national level.  That is what strikes me most particularly about the motion.

Then we had the proposer of the motion speak.  When she was challenged by my intervention to deplore the current use of the internet to promote a campaign to boycott all Orange-owned businesses, she tried to tell us that it was not a Sinn Féin site.  It bears the Sinn Féin banner.  She did not tell us that Sinn Féin has taken steps with the hosts to have the Sinn Féin banner removed.  She did not tell us why it carries so many likes from Sinn Féin branches and organisations.

We should be very slow to listen to those who speak with double tongues on these issues.  That is a low-down, scurrilous attempt to put people out of business on the most base of sectarian grounds and to vilify, harass and pursue them and to use social networking sites towards that end.  The site boasts that it will publish a list of those who are to be boycotted.  The proposer of the motion could not even bring herself to denounce or deplore such a misuse of the website.  That speaks volumes about what those who peddle the motion today really think and what they are really doing.

I support the motion because the words are right, but I challenge fundamentally the motivations and actions of those who tabled the motion.  I have to say the same to the SDLP about its amendment.  It is a very sound amendment, but for one thing: yesterday they joined forces with those who want to make sure that there is not effective policing of matters such as paedophilia and the gangs that operate across the nation.  It was of great sadness to me that the SDLP took that standpoint.   I have a simple question: how would the crime organisers have wished you to vote yesterday?  How would the victims of crime have wished you to vote?  The manner in which some people voted is indicative of a very sorry state of affairs.

Photo of Conall McDevitt Conall McDevitt Social Democratic and Labour Party 3:30 pm, 5th February 2013

I thank Mr Allister for giving way.  He poses a simple question.  I pose a simple question back:  why do those who know most about tackling paedophilia — the people who established CEOP, which is a fantastic agency that did not require one single warranted officer to be operational in Northern Ireland to defend our children from the worst excesses of online abuse — think that the National Crime Agency is a bad idea?  That is a simple question that we all, if we are honest, should reflect on.  It is not about the need to do it; it is about doing it in the right way.  We do not believe that the right way has been found yet.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

The reality is that we have legislation that is going to provide for the National Crime Agency.  You either have it or you do not.  Those who say that they will not have it are saying that they will give free writ to the paedophiles and the organised crime gangs because they have some theological, ideological —

Photo of John Dallat John Dallat Social Democratic and Labour Party

The Member should draw his remarks to a close.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

— and precious principle that they cannot sacrifice.  Therefore, they will sacrifice —

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

— the pursuit of paedophiles and all the rest on that altar.  That is shameful.

Photo of David Ford David Ford Alliance

I welcome the fact that the Assembly has such interest in these important issues that it has managed to have two very similar debates today.  There is absolutely no doubt that the phenomenon and the growth of social networking sites,  and social media generally, has changed the way in which we communicate and interact with one another.  A number of Members highlighted the positive and negative aspects of that.  Some negatives are fairly trifling, such as Jim Wells's wig, or a picture of me falling asleep after Christmas dinner, which was posted on Facebook by a daughter.  However, other aspects are extremely serious.

Photo of Jim Wells Jim Wells DUP

I am not wearing a wig.

Photo of David Ford David Ford Alliance

I accept Mr Wells's correction:  his alleged wig.

Having pointed out the relatively jokey aspect of that offence, we need to take into serious consideration those who exploit these sites for some foul activity.  It can involve bullying or harassing others; circulating unfounded allegations, which may or may not be fair game against a politician; or making grossly offensive comments.  Sometimes, as has been highlighted, that has tragic consequences.

It is clearly important that people, especially the most vulnerable, are protected through both civil and criminal law from serious harassment.  There is no doubt that children require protection from exploitation from those who wish them harm, in whatever way they wish it.  The fact that, as so many Members highlighted, children and young people can access the internet free from parental supervision is clearly an issue of concern.

There is also no doubt about the speed with which modern technology with instant communication has enabled people to be mobilised on to the streets.  We saw that during the riots in London and other English cities in 2011, and we saw its impact in recent weeks in Northern Ireland.  Social networking websites have played a major role in street protests since early December.  Although I certainly recognise that everyone has the right to peaceful, lawful protest, there is a real need to ensure that it is balanced by mutual respect and tolerance for a variety of opinions.  Social networks are clearly being used for a variety of criminal activities and to publicise protests that go way beyond any legitimate protest.

The motion calls, in part, for improved regulation.  Regulation of the internet is not an issue that falls within my responsibility, nor, indeed, within that of any part of our devolved Executive.  Under the Northern Ireland Act 1998, it is specifically a reserved issue, which no doubt reflects the global nature of telecommunications generally.  Decisions on regulation are for the UK Government to make through the Department for Culture, Media and Sport in London. 

However, those who misuse these sites can be subject to sanctions.  When people post or send messages that are judged to be grossly offensive or of an obscene or menacing nature, they are guilty of an offence under the Communications Act 2003.  One Member said that it was OK to be grossly offensive about politicians, but it is not.  It is OK to be offensive, but to be grossly offensive is a criminal offence, and people should acknowledge that.  That is the difference between joking about people allegedly wearing wigs and the other stuff that we see at times, particularly some of the vile and hateful comments directed against vulnerable young people.


As stated in the recent interim guidelines from the Crown Prosecution Service for England and Wales, the volume of communications that we see on Facebook, Twitter or YouTube means that the threshold for prosecution is necessarily high.  Otherwise, there is:

"a chilling effect on free speech",

Free speech is a right that we should all hold dear.  The PSNI has advised that it is reviewing a number of comments by individuals in relation to recent protests.  As I said, many comments posted on some websites are undoubtedly distasteful, but that does not mean that they are unlawful.  However, action should be taken against those that are unlawful —

Photo of Paul Givan Paul Givan DUP

I appreciate the Minister giving way.  I think that I am the one who referred to the comments being grossly offensive.  That was taken from a Police Service briefing on 23 January, which stated:

"comments ... may be distasteful or grossly offensive but that does not mean that they are unlawful" .

So I welcome the Minister's clarification of what was said at a PSNI briefing on 23 January.

Photo of David Ford David Ford Alliance

I fear that I have been placed in a difficult position through my legal advice differing from the advice given by the Police Service.  However, I think that we could all agree, as a matter of common sense, that boundaries are being overstepped constantly in social media.  Certainly, where the police believe that offences have been committed under the Communications Act, they will pursue charges, as they have a responsibility to do.

Any changes to the legislation are not for my Department, but there are issues on which there are roles for us in the Assembly and where the Northern Ireland legislative framework has a number of alternative effective penalties for a variety of offences.

Photo of Jim Wells Jim Wells DUP

I accept that it is absolutely right that internet regulation does not fall within his powers, but he is a man of very considerable influence.  Will he support calls for Westminster to legislate so that only those who opt in to sites that portray violence or graphic sexual activity will be entitled and enabled to access that material and the rest of the community, including our young people, will not be able to do so?  Will he at least support calls for London to do that?

Photo of David Ford David Ford Alliance

Mr Wells has caught me on a particular point.  I am certainly aware that, for example, YouTube will, in a number of cases, indicate the particular content of a specific video.  There are issues with how exactly that is managed.  I will discuss that issue, among others, when I meet the Lord Chancellor this week.  I am certainly prepared to discuss it, but we would need to be very sure exactly what the implications are before I could give a firm commitment to support what Mr Wells is saying.  If he has any more specific information that he wishes to give me before I meet the Lord Chancellor, I will happily look at it. 

The current position in Northern Ireland legislation is that 10 years' imprisonment is the maximum penalty available when comments constitute threats to kill or, when an assessment of dangerousness is made, indefinite imprisonment with release at the discretion of the Parole Commissioners.  When comments target specific individuals and constitute an offence under harassment legislation, penalties of up to seven years' imprisonment are available, subject to the nature and seriousness of the offence.  Those are significant penalties for significant offences.  When comments breach hate crime legislation, penalties of up to seven years are also available, and there is a range of offences for which maximum penalties available are increased when they are shown to be motivated by hate on the grounds of race, religion, sexual orientation or disability.  That is our existing legislation as it applies to hate crimes, and it can be used against modern telecommunications.

The motion also asks us to note the use of social networking sites by "sexual predators" seeking "to groom [young] victims".  We all recognise the harm that can be done by those who use the internet to seek out vulnerable victims for sexual abuse, and many Members spoke about that during the debate.  There are, of course, real issues for us in a small region.  The internet has no boundaries.  No distances are too great to forge.  For that reason alone, the task of closing down the opportunity for abusers is also a global one, and not one that can be regulated by my Department or the Assembly.  However, I fully support the work that is being done by the PSNI in conjunction with its colleagues in an Garda Síochána and the range of agencies across the UK, including, as Members particularly highlighted, the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, to jointly target offenders, from wherever the source, and protect children from abuse.

The criminal law in Northern Ireland also makes it very clear that this type of offending will not be tolerated.  Grooming a child, by whatever means, is an offence if the person then makes arrangements and travels with the intention of meeting the child to sexually abuse him or her.  The maximum penalty is a 10-year prison sentence.  Causing or inciting a child to engage in sexual activity is also an offence that applies either online or offline, as is causing a child to watch a sexual act.  So the behaviour is already criminalised but, as acknowledged today, the hard part is obtaining the evidence in the way that such activity can occur across space and time.  Therefore, although the police, CEOP and the criminal law will continue to challenge the global and internal aspects of this type of offending, it would be wrong to think that all risk from such abusers could be eliminated.  However, much can be done to address the risks.  That includes through education and good practice in schools and homes, which will make children safer and less likely to fall victim to sexual abuse via the internet, and a number of Members talked about the way in which young children could be better supervised.  Indeed, it was a comment that Mark Durkan referred to in his speech winding up the previous debate.

I also want to highlight the fact that sentencing guidelines have been or are being developed for many of the offences for which people who post comments on internet sites or use the internet for criminal purposes can be convicted.  That is part of the work being led by the Lord Chief Justice in his programme of action, which will enhance the guidance available to other members of the judiciary in making their sentencing decisions.

So let me say again that this has been a useful debate.  I welcome the opportunity to debate this important issue and support the thrust of the motion, although I make the technical reservation as to exactly what my powers are.  However, given that regulation of the internet is a reserved matter, and there is little that I can do, as I just said to Mr Wells, I will use the opportunity of my meeting the Secretary of State for Justice this week to highlight the issues that Members raised.  I believe that that will be a practical demonstration of the work that my Department proposes to do to implement the spirit of the motion.  I am committed to ensuring that an appropriate range of penalties exists in criminal law to deal with serious harassment and hate crime, whatever form it takes, because that is my direct responsibility to the Assembly.  Should specific proposals arise from the debate, they will certainly be examined seriously by the Department.

I will say a few words on the amendment.  Naturally, the deployment of resources in any assessment of the adequacy of the number of police officers in the PSNI is a matter for the Chief Constable.  In this specific context, I am aware that the Chief Constable has stated that he considers that sufficient resources are being directed to allow police to take forward their investigative obligations in respect of online hate crime.  He is following up other matters related to recent street disturbances, but on the specific issues that are highlighted, such as the sexual grooming of young people, he is also relying on the expertise that is available in CEOP to the PSNI and other police services across the UK.  Yesterday other Members highlighted the irony that, in the context of CEOP's being absorbed into the National Crime Agency, regardless of whatever the opinions in this Chamber might be, it is unfortunate that we will lose that aspect of CEOP's work if we do not get the NCA in place as its successor.

Photo of Jim Wells Jim Wells DUP

Does the Member accept from me that, as a result of yesterday's decision, children in Northern Ireland will be more vulnerable to that type of nefarious activity without the strength of an organisation covering all the United Kingdom or having the resources of 60 million people at its beck and call?  Does he agree that, as far as our children are concerned, that was a very serious decision that was taken yesterday?

Photo of David Ford David Ford Alliance

Certainly, the evidence that has been put to me is that we rely significantly on the specialist expertise of agencies such as CEOP to support the Police Service's work.  The Police Service would simply not be capable of developing the expertise that is required to deal with that level of exploitation if it had to develop matters on its own.  So, that is an issue on which I have concerns arising from this debate.  However, I also note that there has largely been agreement around the Chamber about the work that we seek to do to eliminate hate crime from the internet where we can, where we have responsibilities and where there is local action to be taken.  There is certainly unanimity about the need to protect vulnerable people in Northern Ireland, including vulnerable children and young people.  When moving the amendment, Conall McDevitt seemed to dwell very little on resources and a lot on the need to stand up against harassment and bullying, whether online or offline.  That view, when first put forward, attracted unanimous support around the Chamber, as it deserved to.

Photo of Alban Maginness Alban Maginness Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank all those who contributed to the debate.  I think that the amendment that we in the SDLP tabled enriches the motion.  I do not think that there has been much opposition to it.  The amendment is intended to, first, call for additional police resources.  We are calling for additional police resources, which does not necessarily mean policemen or women but resources at large, because we believe that online hate crimes have become a persistent and chronic problem and, therefore, one that requires such additional resources.  That has been exemplified in recent days and weeks in the use of social network sites in the dispute over flags.  It is quite clear that there is a requirement for additional resources, and I hope that the whole House will support that and that the PSNI will take it into consideration in its operational activities.

There has been some criticism levelled at the SDLP in particular about our attitude to the NCA.  We had the debate about that yesterday.  I am not going to repeat the arguments that we made yesterday on accountability.  They are well-established arguments under the Patten architecture for policing.  I believe that, in 'The Telegraph', we have an article by Mr Jim Gamble, who was head of CEOP.  In fact, he set it up.  In that article, he is critical of the fact that CEOP will go into the NCA.  He makes legitimate criticisms.  If that man, who is a very distinguished police officer and did a good job at CEOP, is regarded as a legitimate commentator on the National Crime Agency, surely we, who are politicians and who have been given the job of legitimately scrutinising legislation, not perhaps in this House but in another place, should equally be respected for our views.  You may disagree with them, but you should respect the fact that we have legitimate criticisms to make.

The criticisms that we made should be taken on board.  The Westminster Government should be sensitive to those criticisms and therefore take action.  I will not go further than that, but Mr Gamble has made a very strong argument, and it behoves Members to take that argument seriously.

I am no expert on anything in this field, but the points have been well made by all the contributors to the debate that we are against cyberbullying; that we require parents to be more vigilant; that the grooming of young people in particular is a vile offence; and that we are concerned about the penalties that can be imposed and the actions that can be taken against people.  It is important for us to make those points publicly, to emphasise them and to get that message across.  I am slightly disappointed —

Photo of Francie Molloy Francie Molloy Sinn Féin

I ask the Member to bring his remarks to a close.

Photo of Alban Maginness Alban Maginness Social Democratic and Labour Party

I was going to go further, because I thought that I had another minute.  I was slightly disappointed with the Minister's response, in so far as I think that he has a very important job to inform Westminster about the gaps that exist in the law here.  More could be done.

Photo of Raymond McCartney Raymond McCartney Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle.  Beidh mé ag labhairt ar son an rúin seo agus ag tacú leis an leasmholadh.  I speak in favour of the motion, and we will support the amendment.

It is appropriate, with today being internet safety day, that this is the second debate on two aspects of the internet.  The first debate was on child safety, while this debate focused more on regulation of the internet and abuses of it.

I thank everyone who contributed to this debate, particularly the Minister of Justice.  I will address his comments later on.  It is important that there was, I think, unanimity in support of the motion.

Jim Allister nearly supported the motion.  I think that he felt that it was the right motion but perhaps questioned the fact that Sinn Féin proposed it.  That perhaps left him with some reservations.  I want to address one of the points that he made.  I want to state publicly that Sinn Féin stands in total and absolute opposition to any campaign that purports to boycott any shops — I think that they were named here as Orange shops.

Indeed, if Mr Allister will take up the opportunity, through the auspices of the Speaker's Office, to supply us with a  copy of the printout from the internet, we will certainly examine any issue pertaining to Sinn Féin as a party.

I want to make another point that is relevant to the discussion about the internet.  We have all had experiences of bogus sites.  You hear about teenagers swapping addresses, about bogus IDs, and so on.  Someone who told us earlier today that he once had the gift of legal aid and is a senior counsel would know that any person in their right mind would never start a prosecution or a defence by saying, "I read it on the internet."  Mr Allister should perhaps caution himself —

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

The Member says that his party disowns any boycott of orange-owned businesses.  If he and his party check out the site — and with their vast coterie of press agents, I would have thought that they would have already done so — they would see that several branches of Sinn Féin have indicated support for, and "liked" the proposition of, boycotting orange-owned businesses.  Is he prepared today to rebuke those parts of Sinn Féin that have publicly endorsed that campaign on Facebook?  Is he prepared to undertake that the Sinn Féin banner, if it is being misused, will be removed from that site and state that he utterly repudiates the site and all its content, which includes somebody's posted photographs of the leader of Sinn Féin?

Photo of Raymond McCartney Raymond McCartney Sinn Féin

First, I repudiate any person using the Sinn Féin logo in the manner in which it was.  I have asked Mr Allister to supply the document to the Speaker's Office so that we can examine it.  Even though we had the Diplock courts for a long time in the North, Mr Allister would support everybody's right to a fair hearing.  I cannot examine or give a disposition on a document that I have not seen, so, if he wants to take up that invitation, I am sure that the Speaker's Office will accommodate him.

There were a number of recurring themes in the debate.  Most people who spoke accepted that the internet has had a very positive impact on society across the spectrum, from the economy to democracy to its social use by children and adults.  Local businesspeople might not see it as a positive, but we have seen an increase in the online economy, with people buying more online.  That was the purpose of today's debate.

However, we have also seen an increase in the use of the internet for a variety of things such as hate crime, racism, sectarianism, bullying, homophobia and many other forms of intimidation.  Indeed, in recent times, I am sure that we have all read about and seen on television how that has manifested itself in many different societies.  We are not free from that here in the North.  That is one of the points we make about regulation:  there are many instances where people feel that the internet has been abused, but we do not seem to see internet sites or their suppliers and engine drivers go after those who abuse a very positive tool.

I do not want to name any companies, but a number of times I have found that when your e-mail account is hacked there is no facility to inform the company so that it can take steps to close down the account.  It is nearly as if they do not see such things as being important, whereas we all know that your site is hacked and someone has control it, even if it just for a number of hours, you may end up in the type of scenario that Mr Allister majored on earlier.  We need some sort of regulation on that.

People talked about the role of education in teaching us all, not just children, about how not to abuse the internet and how to use it in a positive and constructive way.  Unfortunately, there are those who abuse it.  The Minister and other Members mentioned a number of pieces of legislation that protect citizens from that abuse, but I would like the Minister to have said how many people have been charged, prosecuted or even visited and cautioned due to their use of the internet.  That would inform the debate.  If you ask most people, they would struggle to name cases, apart from one or two notable instances in the recent past, in which someone faced charges for abuse of the internet, despite all of us accepting that it happens on a daily and continuing basis.  If people feel that they are relatively free from being pursued when they go on the internet, they will be encouraged to abuse it:  if you think there is no sanction, why would you stop doing it?

That is the part of regulation under which, as the Minister correctly said, it might be difficult to prove what is grossly offensive as distinct from offensive.  However, at least a person can be asked why they have chosen to say a, b, c and d, and it can be done in a way that is not an investigation or something that goes in front of the Public Prosecution Service.  The person is then held to some sort of account for their comments.

A number of Members — some of them are not present now — touched on the issue of the NCA.  Yesterday's debate gave us all an opportunity to speak about the impact of the NCA.  The main plank of our position, and indeed that of the SDLP, is around accountability and primacy of policing.  No one is arguing against co-operation.  What we are arguing against is subordination.

Without going into the detail of it, a major investigation is being conducted into match fixing right across Europe.  No one is against the many police services co-operating with one another to ensure that the people who are responsible for that are brought to book.  However, what I can say — and I make an assumption when I say this — is that the French police will not try to circumvent the processes that lie within German borders and vice versa.  That co-operation will happen right across Europe.  So, there should be co-operation but not subordination.

The Minister has said that he would like the NCA to be fully accountable, but that position has not been reached.  Therefore, people should not be in any doubt as to why we are not in support of it at this time.  That should not and will not prevent, and nor has it ever prevented, any police service on this island, North or South, nor I am sure any police service in England, Scotland and Wales or across Europe, from co-operating with one another if there are any internet abuses that cross borders.  That is how we have to go forward.

The Minister commented on the resources.  We initially had a reservation about the amendment before Conall McDevitt and Alban Maginness explained it.  The PSNI says that it has enough resources to deal with hate crime and abuse of the internet.  We say that it should perhaps be more proactive.  If that activity is going to become increasingly prevalent here, it is up to us to ensure that we do not create the space in which people think that they can do this with impunity. 

I appreciate the Minister's comments about his limitations, but —

Photo of Raymond McCartney Raymond McCartney Sinn Féin

— we are reassured that he is willing to take forward the views that have been expressed here today about the need for better regulation.  Today's debates were healthy and good.  They promote the idea that we are interested in ensuring that there is no abuse of the internet.

Question, That the amendment be made, put and agreed to.

Main Question, as amended, put and agreed to.


That this Assembly notes the growing number of people and hate groups who use social networking websites to verbally abuse other users; further notes the use of these sites by sexual predators to groom victims; and calls on the Minister of Justice to explore the introduction of better regulation of these sites and tougher penalties for people who use the sites to commit crime; and further calls for additional policing resources so that online internet hate crimes are able to be fully investigated.

Motion made:

That the Assembly do now adjourn. — [Mr Principal Deputy Speaker.]