Online Harms — [Sir Edward Leigh in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:31 pm on 7th October 2020.

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Photo of Gavin Newlands Gavin Newlands Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Transport) 3:31 pm, 7th October 2020

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Sir Edward. We have had an absolutely excellent debate, as evidenced by the number of Members who have attended. The debate opened with a thoughtful and powerful contribution from Holly Lynch, and I congratulate her on securing it. She spoke alarmingly of the 100 online sex crimes against children each day—or more than 100 now—of the endemic misogyny online, and of the serious danger of doing nothing, comparing the long-term effects of doing nothing to smoking.

Andrew Percy spoke of the ridiculous anti-mask and anti-vaxxer narrative and how it has gained traction online. He shared some of the vile antisemitic comments that often get posted online, often unchallenged on some platforms. Chris Elmore went into a lot more detail on the anti-vax brigade, who are too often emboldened by too many in the public eye, including Members in this place. I am sure he is delighted that Trump’s dangerous posts are being taken down. Fiona Bruce expressed her disappointment, which I share, in the delay thus far in Government action, and she spoke of the survey that found that 63% of adults wanted the Government to implement part 3 of the Digital Economy Act 2017 immediately.

My hon. Friend Dr Cameron spoke of the tidal wave of mental health problems that we can all see in our constituencies and perhaps even in our own families, and the prevalence of online bullying. I think we all agree with what Carla Lockhart said: if every incident that happened online happened in the street, we would not let our children out the door. She spoke of the importance of age verification being part of any Government action.

Mrs Miller spoke of providers and platforms and the absolute necessity for them to show a duty of care to their customers. She also spoke about the inadequacies of the existing legal framework. I look forward to the Minister’s answers to the three sets of on-point questions from Darren Jones. Stephen Doughty spoke of foreign powers spreading disinformation and the dangers of the extreme right wing online, which is definitely a sentiment I agree with.

Carolyn Harris surprised us all by not talking about gambling. She spoke about the fraudulent sale of dangerous, substandard and counterfeit goods. Lastly, Fleur Anderson said that the internet should be a positive place for our children, but that online harm is spiralling out of control. We have had quite contrasting contributions to the debate, but certainly there was a consensus within that that the Government must take action now. As has just been said, the internet should be an enormous and progressive force for good, whether for our economic development or for connecting with family and friends across the world, but all too often our experience can be a negative one, be that through the daily undermining of civil discourse, identity theft or being bullied or abused.

The internet has become an integral, indispensable and in many ways pervasive part of daily life, with nearly 90% of UK adults online. For 12 to 15-year-olds that figure is 99%, and I can definitely state that my 14-year-old is not one of the 1% in this case. One thing I think we all agree on is that the sheer pace of the development of the internet and our use of it, particularly over the past few months, has been difficult for Parliaments, Governments and therefore laws to keep pace with. These reforms are absolutely vital; they were already overdue and they have been subject to repeated delay. The pandemic has only added to the urgent need for their completion, as the world has moved online to an even greater extent.

The last formal update on the White Paper came in a report in February, but during the past six months, the NSPCC has reported an increased risk to children online during lockdown, while cases of covid-19-related fraud and scams have become prevalent. We know of fraudsters routinely targeting victims through sponsored Google and Facebook links and harvesting personal details from fake call centres.

There is a long-standing problem with serious organised criminals impersonating investment products; the Investment Association has reported that in the three months following the start of lockdown, reports of cloning scam activity spiked. Pandemic misinformation and online conspiracy theories have real consequences in the real world too, from increased numbers of people saying they will refuse a vaccine to the burning down of 5G masts.

That all increases the urgency for reform, but, as has been mentioned during the debate, the recent report from the House of Lords Democracy and Digital Technologies Committee said that the Bill might not come into effect until 2024, as the Government drag their feet on a draft Bill. In her response to the debate, may I seek an assurance from the Minister that that is not the case and that it will come in sooner than that?

The longer these delays continue, the more difficult it becomes for the Government to deny that they are due to the influence of extensive lobbying by large tech companies, coupled with a fear of potential damage to US-UK trade talks. Again, I seek an assurance in the Minister’s contribution that any trade talks with the US will have no influence on the Government’s approach or their timetable for taking action. The UK’s reputation as a secure financial centre is also at stake; with Brexit already leading firms to look to relocate, it is even more vital for the Government to avoid giving them another reason to do so.

It goes without saying, but I will say it anyway, that the Scottish Government firmly believe that online abuse is unacceptable and that everybody deserves to be treated fairly, regardless of age, disability, gender, gender identity, race, religion, belief or sexual orientation. The Scottish Government have funded respectme, Scotland’s fantastic anti-bullying service, which acts as a source of information for young people in Scotland. The organisation has created and made available publications to raise awareness of the issue of cyber-bullying. It has highlighted that online bullying is still bullying, and it implores us not to get caught up on the medium of abuse. We absolutely must tackle online abuse as robustly and reactively as offline abuse. There should be greater steps taken to inform the public of their right to report online abuse to the police, and training given to police forces on how to handle such cases.

A number of our own MPs, as has been mentioned, have experienced online abuse. Although politicians have chosen to be in public life, and with that comes an acceptance of public criticism, there is a crystal-clear difference between criticism—even harsh criticism—and abuse. I stand with all hon. Members who have suffered abuse, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow during the last election. I will also make the point that, while men are harassed online, when women are the target, online harassment quickly descends into sexualised hate or threats. Online gender-based violence is a clear example of the deeply rooted gender inequalities that still sadly exist in our society.

We have also heard that children are deeply vulnerable to online abuse. We must do more to keep them safe. The Scottish Government have a national action plan on internet safety for children and young people. The plan emphasises the role that wider society, including the online sector, must play in enhancing internet safety for children and young people. The Scottish Government continue to work to ensure that professionals and communities have the appropriate skills and knowledge to provide support to children and young people.

As in England and Wales, there are a number of offences in Scots law that can cover online bullying and harassment. The Scottish Government are looking to add further protections in this area by publishing a hate crime Bill, which will consolidate, modernise and extend existing hate crime legislation, ensuring that it is fit for 21st-century Scotland. The Scottish Government have engaged extensively with more than 50 organisations, including Police Scotland, the Crown Office and others that work in the criminal justice system. The Bill does not prevent people from expressing controversial, challenging or offensive views, nor does it seek to stifle criticism or rigorous debate in any way, but it will target individuals whose behaviour is threatening or abusive and is intended to stir up hatred. The Scottish Government will continue to consult and listen to all views as the Bill progresses, to ensure that the correct balance is struck.

It is crystal clear from today’s debate that there is a consensus for action on this vital issue. We just need the Government to get on with it. The longer they wait, the more lives are ruined by online crime and abuse.