Clause 15 - Duties to protect content of democratic importance

Part of Online Safety Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 4:13 pm on 7th June 2022.

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Photo of Kim Leadbeater Kim Leadbeater Labour, Batley and Spen 4:13 pm, 7th June 2022

I knew that. [Laughter.]

Five years later, we continue to see significant volumes of racist, sexist and homophobic hate-filled abuse and threats online to politicians of all parties. That is unacceptable in itself, but we must ask whether this toxic environment helps to keep decent people in politics or, indeed, attracts good people into politics, so that our democracy can prosper into the future across the political spectrum. The reality we face is that our democracy is under attack online each and every day, and every day we delay acting is another day on which abuse becomes increasingly normalised or is just seen as part of the job for those who have put themselves forward for public service. This form of abuse harms society as a whole, so it deserves specific consideration in the Bill.

While elected Members and officials are not a special group of people deserving of more legal protections than anyone else, we must be honest that the abuse they face is distinct and specific to those roles and directly affects our democracy itself. It can lead to the most serious physical harm, with two Members of Parliament having been murdered in the last six years, and many others face death threats or threats of sexual or other violence on a daily basis. However, this is not just about harm to elected representatives; online threats are often seen first, and sometimes only, by their members of staff. They may not be the intended target, but they are often the people harmed most. I am sure we all agree that that is unacceptable and cannot continue.

All of us have probably reported messages and threats to social media platforms and the police, with varying degrees of success in terms of having them removed or the individuals prosecuted. Indeed, we sadly heard examples of that from my hon. Friend the shadow Minister. Often we are told that nothing can be done. Currently, the platforms look at their own rules to determine what constitutes freedom of speech or expression and what is hateful speech or harm. That fine line moves. There is no consistency across platforms, and we therefore urgently need more clarity and a legal duty in place to remove that content quickly.

Amendment 105 would explicitly include in the Bill protection and consideration for those involved in UK elections, whether candidates or staff. Amendment 106 would go further and place an obligation on Ofcom to produce a code of practice, to be issued to the platforms. It would define what steps platforms must take to protect those involved in elections and set out what content is acceptable or unacceptable to be directed at them.

While I am cautious about heaping responsibility on Ofcom and I remain nervous about the Government’s willingness to leave more and more contentious issues for it to deal with, I believe that that is a reasonable step. It would allow Ofcom to outline what steps a platform must take to protect democratic debate and to set out acceptable and unacceptable content in the context of our ever-changing political landscape. That form of nuance would need to be regularly updated, so it clearly would not be practical to put it in the Bill.

Let us be honest: will this amendment solve the issue entirely? No. However, does more need to be done to protect our democracy? Yes. I am in constant conversation with people and organisations in this sector about what else could be brought forward to assist the police and the Crown Prosecution Service in prosecuting those who wish to harm those elected to public office—both online and offline. Directly addressing the duty of platforms to review content, remove harmful speech and report those who wish to do harm would, I believe, be a positive first step towards protecting our democratic debate and defending those who work to make it effective on behalf of the people of the United Kingdom.