Online Harms — [Sir Edward Leigh in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:07 pm on 7th October 2020.

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Photo of Carla Lockhart Carla Lockhart DUP, Upper Bann 3:07 pm, 7th October 2020

I commend Holly Lynch for securing this important debate on an issue that I am passionate about, being motivated by my own experience of online abuse. A constituent has spoken to me about their experience and their concerns. I speak also as a mother who has concerns about what the online world will look like when my son starts accessing the internet.

Covid-19 has magnified the benefits of the internet. Our social media platforms have been so important in getting the safety message out, as well as being important for remote learning and home schooling. More than ever, we talk to our family online. Those are just some examples of how the internet can be a tremendous power for good. However the internet also remains one of the most dangerous and potentially destructive interventions of the last century. It is a place where online bullying and harassment occurs daily, where child abuse is endemic, and where damaging information can be shared, suicide and self-harm promoted, and terrorism encouraged and espoused.

In recent months, these abhorrent sides of the internet have certainly got a tighter grip. If what happens every second on the internet happened on the streets, we would not let our children anywhere near it and we would expect the full force of the law to be applied to it. Yet Government and law enforcement have allowed the intangible, remote worldwide web to self-regulate, and have also allowed an attitude of self-regulation for well over a decade. It is my belief that this must end.

I wholeheartedly endorse the six tests outlined by the NSPCC last week on what must be delivered by the legislation, including liability, empowering a regulator, effective sanctions, and recognising and dealing with the gravity of issues such as abuse, self-harm and suicide. Can anyone give me a good reason why we cannot take these steps?

I wish today to highlight a number of concerns. The first is about age verification, which is an absolute must in the forthcoming legislation. The Government U-turn of 16 October 2019 on age verification has never been accompanied by an explanation that made sense. Given that age verification providers were in place and ready to provide robust, high-specification, secure, anonymised verification, the alleged technology issues explanation does not stack up. In addition, why would the Government hold back on something that could be delivered now, as opposed to trying to marry it with other online harms that will be picked up in the current legislation? The Minister at that time told us that provision in the Conservative manifesto for statutory age verification on commercial pornography sites was “a critically important issue”. If it is critically important, it needs tackling immediately. I also ask the Government to prove us wrong on the perception that they are intent on watering down the protections for children in this regard.

On anonymity, we need to tackle these faceless trolls. We need to strip away the ability to have several accounts, all of which are used to abuse individuals. We are all accustomed to confirming our identity, be it for employment or going through the airport. Why not online?

Finally, let us look at what else we can do to increase awareness and educate children, parents and society at large. I had the privilege last week of meeting a young lady from my constituency, Mrs Deborah Webster, who has carried out significant research into the impact of legal but harmful content on our young people. Her findings are staggering—so much so that she now goes into schools to carry out a digital resilience programme. I think we all need some digital resilience in today’s society, but it needs to be underpinned by education and the curriculum. This is a huge opportunity for the Government to make a difference in almost every home in the country. It ought not to be missed.