Online Harms — [Sir Edward Leigh in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:30 pm on 7th October 2020.

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Photo of Holly Lynch Holly Lynch Shadow Minister (Home Office) 2:30 pm, 7th October 2020

My hon. Friend, who has vast experience in this area, references some of the most extreme and harrowing online experiences, which our children are now becoming exposed to on a regular basis. We absolutely must re-resource this area to get a grip of it and prevent children from becoming victims, which happens every day that we do not tighten up the rules and regulations surrounding the use of the internet.

I also ask the Minister whether legislation will include— it should—regulation of, or rather the removal of, misinformation and disinformation online. Will it seek to regulate much more of what is harmful and hateful but is not necessarily criminal from a public health perspective, if nothing else? Will the proposed duty of care be properly underpinned by a statutory framework? Just how significant will the consequences be for those who do not adhere to it?

The Government announced the suspension of the implementation of an age-verification regime for commercial pornography sites on 16 October 2019, despite the fact that it only needed a commencement date. It is not at all clear why that was or when it will be reintroduced. I hope that the Minister can enlighten is about when the regime will come into effect.

The Local Government Association has raised important concerns. Local authorities have statutory safeguarding responsibilities on issues such as child exploitation, as we have just heard, suicide prevention and tackling addiction, all of which become incredibly difficult when a child or young person—or an adult, for that matter—goes online. It had to produce the “Councillors’ guide to handling intimidation”, which recognises the growing need among councillors for support related to predominantly online intimidation. That is another damning indication of just how bad things have become.

I have worked with these groups on this issue and have been overwhelmed with suggestions for what more could be done. First, no one should be able to set up an entirely anonymous profile on social media platforms. The rise in bots and people hiding behind anonymous profiles who push hate and abuse should simply no longer be allowed. People would not necessarily have to put all their information in the public domain, but they would need to provide accurate information in order to be able to set up an account or a profile. The approach is explicitly called for in two of the public petitions attached to the debate, demonstrating that there is public support for such an approach. That would allow us to hold both the platform and the individuals responsible to account for any breaches in conduct.

Imagine if being held to account for posting something that is predetermined to be abusive through the online harms Bill, such as hateful antisemitic content, meant that an appropriate agency—be it Ofcom, the police or the enforcement arm of a new regulator— could effectively issue on-the-spot fines to the perpetrator. If we can identify the perpetrator, we can also work with police to determine whether a hate crime has occurred and bring charges wherever possible. The increased resources that are necessary for such an approach would be covered by the revenue generated by those fines. That type of approach would be transformative. Can the Minister respond to that point—not necessarily to me, but to all those who have signed the petitions before us, which ask for that kind of thinking?

Fearing that the Government lack the will to adopt the radical approach that is required, the working group that I spoke about will look to get more and more advertisers on board that are prepared to pull their advertising from social media platforms if the sorts of transformations that we are calling for are not forthcoming. I put everyone on notice that that work is well under way.

On securing the debate, I was approached by colleagues from all parties, and I am pleased that so many are able to take part. Given just how broad this topic is, I have not said anything about extremist and radical content online, gang violence, cyber-bullying, self-harm, explicit and extreme content, sexual content, grooming, gaming and gambling, and the promotion of eating disorders. I am sure others will say more about such things, but I fear the Government will say that there is so much to regulate that they are struggling to see the way forward. There is so much there that it is a dereliction of duty every day that we fail to regulate this space and keep damaging content from our young people and adults alike.

We know that this is an international issue, and Plan International has just released the results of its largest ever global survey on online violence after speaking to 14,000 girls aged 15 to 25 across 22 countries. The data reveal that nearly 60% have been harassed or abused online, and that one in five girls have left a social media platform or significantly reduced their use of it after being harassed. This plea goes to the social media companies as well: if they want to have users in the future who can enjoy what they provide, they must create a safe space. Currently, they simply do not. It is an international issue, but we are the mother of Parliaments, are we not?

The Government seem so overwhelmed by the prospect of doing everything that they are not doing anything. I urge the Minister to start that process. Take those first steps, because each one will make some difference in bringing about the change that we have a moral obligation to deliver.