Online Anonymity — [Esther McVey in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at 11:28 am on 13th January 2021.

Alert me about debates like this

[Esther McVey in the Chair]

Photo of Siobhan Baillie Siobhan Baillie Conservative, Stroud 2:30 pm, 13th January 2021

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered online anonymity.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McVey. I thank my right hon. Friend Damian Hinds, who originally intended to lead this debate. I am pleased to step in this afternoon but saddened that we will not hear from him on this important subject.

We need to debate if and how Government could and should tackle anonymity online. We must do so, as the public are already living through the hate and misinformation in debate on a daily basis. If we do not tackle anonymity, the horror, the suicides, the bullying, racism and misogyny as well as people being put off jobs and democracy being undermined will continue unchecked. In 2021, the public expects proper leadership on tech.

An Ofcom report last year said that the average adult spends 4.2 hours a day online, with children spending even more time on their screens. Since the covid lockdown required us to work, play and learn online, I expect that the average daily screen time has shot up even more across all demographics. Yet, bizarrely, using tech more is not increasing confidence. More than three quarters of UK adults express a concern about going online, and fewer parents feel the benefits of being online outweigh the risks for their children, with the proportion falling from 65% in 2015 to 55% in 2019.

Research shows that 47% of children and teens say they saw content that they wish they had not seen during the first lockdown. Tech companies know that but have failed to do enough to protect people. What is the impact of the internet being the wild west at home? When children want a social media account, it is trolls, hate, abuse, bullying and exposure to criminality that keeps parents up at night, not their kids’ ability to express themselves freely. When smart individuals consider going into public office, journalism or for a promotion that that will be media facing, they will hesitate and perhaps not apply, as they have seen somebody’s appearance, voice, height and intelligence eviscerated on Twitter.

During the pandemic, families must work out whether what they are reading is credible or from covid deniers and anti-vaxxers, and we constantly have to undo the damage that scammers cause. Governments around the world are dealing with the impact of online actors who are attempting to subvert the democratic processes. Anonymity is, of course, not the sole cause of all these problems and, in some important circumstances, it enables people to speak freely to protect themselves or the public. Freedom of expression is integral to our society. However, if people are asked whether anonymity is a big problem online, the answer will be yes. The Minister might say that anonymous nasties will be dealt with by the coming online harms legislation. The Government will legislate to require social media platforms to take more effective actions against abuse, whether that is anonymous or not. That is quite right and there is much to praise in the Government’s White Paper. The focus on protecting children and empowering adults to stay safe online is incredibly important. The ministerial online harms work, though overdue, is to be commended.

I do not believe the proposed Bill goes far enough on a range of issues. The White Paper barely addressed the issue of anonymity, despite accepting in the document that anonymous abuse is on the rise. I was also surprised to note that the Government’s consultation did not specifically ask about anonymous abuse. That was a missed opportunity. Most men and women on the Clapham omnibus would expect Government to address anonymity fully when considering online harms. That said, respondents to the consultation told the Government what they thought anyway. The paper says,

“Respondents put forward arguments both for and against preserving online anonymity, particularly in regard to protecting the identity of those individuals who flag harmful content.”

It would be useful to know more about respondents’ comments about anonymity to this and other Government consultations. We should consult properly on this subject.

The new legislative framework for tech companies will create a duty of care to their users. The legislation will require companies to prevent the proliferation of illegal content and activity online, and ensure that children who use their services are not exposed to harmful content. As it stands, the tech companies do not know who millions of their users are, so they do not know who their harmful operators are, either. By failing to deal with anonymity properly, any regulator or police force, or even the tech companies themselves, will still need to take extensive steps to uncover the person behind the account first, before they can tackle the issue or protect a user.

The Law Commission acknowledged that anonymity often facilitates and encourages abusive behaviours. It said that combined with an online disinhibition effect, abusive behaviours, such as pile-on harassment, are much easier to engage in on a practical level. The Online Harms White Paper focuses on regulation of platforms and the Law Commission’s work addresses the criminal law provisions that apply for individuals. It is imperative, in my view, that the Law Commission’s report and proposals are fully debated prior to the online harms Bill passing through Parliament. They should go hand in hand.

Standing in Parliament, I must mention that online abuse is putting people off going into public service and speaking up generally. One reason I became interested in this subject was the awful abuse I received for daring to have a baby and be an MP. Attacking somebody for being a mum or suggesting that a mum cannot do this job is misogynistic and, quite frankly, ridiculous, but I would be lying if I said that I did not find some of the comments stressful and upsetting, particularly given I had just had a baby.

Is there a greater impediment to freedom of expression than a woman being called a whore online or being told that she will be raped for expressing a view? It happens. It happens frequently and the authors are often anonymous. Fantastic groups like 50:50 Parliament, the Centenary Action Group, More United and Compassion in Politics are tackling this head on to avoid men and women being put off running for office. One of the six online harm asks from Compassion in Politics is to significantly reduce the prevalence and influence of anonymous accounts online.

It is also worth looking at cases where anonymity is not abusive, just bizarre or mean. These people often fly just on the right side of not committing a crime, so it cannot be touched, but they are no less stressful, damaging or awful to deal with. For example, last week I posted a picture of my nephew Rhys on social media. Some hon. Members may have seen it. I did this with my sister’s permission, I add, because she is stronger than I am. Rhys has Down’s syndrome and is clinically vulnerable. I wanted to show the happy face of a young man who had just had his first vaccination in Berkshire—not in my patch. I wanted to do this partly to praise the NHS and Government teams, which are doing such an awesome job of rolling out the vaccine, and to show that as the vaccine programme moves forward, it is not just elderly people who are receiving protection.

An anonymised account—interestingly, called “The truth”—immediately called foul. Within a few tweets, I had been accused of pulling rank and helping my family to jump the queue. They said that there is no lowness that Tories will go to. “The truth”—he, she or bot—copied in LBC journalists, a barrister, Piers Morgan, Keir Starmer and my right hon. Friend Boris Johnson. Was that to bring me down? I do not know. It was bizarre.

I personally feel sorry for “The truth”—the account, not the truth itself—and I did not personally feel stressed by that. However, others may not feel the same. Anyone, in my view, who can look at the smiling face of a young disabled person and immediately feel negative, angry or want to make political points is a very sad individual, but I will never know what damage that account has done by attempting to discredit the vaccination system and an elected Member of Parliament.

Millions of anonymous accounts spend all day sending messages that are not abusive, but also not true, in full knowledge that other mad people will join in with them. This can be debilitating for people to deal with. It causes a lot of stress. We know that such behaviour would not be acceptable offline and the people behind anonymous accounts would rarely say these things to our faces in person; it is also not okay online.

In conclusion, I think we agree that decisive action needs to be taken against racism, antisemitism, misogyny and other forms of hate crime. What is illegal offline should be illegal online. On anonymous accounts, I am not convinced that we must put up with the downsides because of the advantages. The application of anonymity in the context of whistleblowing, to an investigative journalist or to an authority has little in common with anonymity that deliberately destabilises, attacks people and whips up emotions on social media.

I look forward to hearing from the Minister, but I am not convinced at this stage that the Government have done enough to investigate this matter. I do not feel that they have done enough to understand the public’s views, to pressurise tech companies to take action or to give users all the choices to have anonymity-free social media experiences, if that is what they want. Some people love to use anonymous accounts and some people love to follow them. They should probably be allowed to do that, but let us give people the choice. As I said at the start, if we do not tackle anonymity, the horror, the suicides, the bullying, the racism, the misogyny and people being put off jobs will continue unchecked. We have the tech to do it and it can be done, so let us do it.

Photo of Justin Madders Justin Madders Shadow Minister (Health and Social Care) 2:40 pm, 13th January 2021

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Ms McVey.

I thank Damian Hinds for securing the debate and his excellent stand-in, Siobhan Baillie, for a compelling and comprehensive introduction to why we are debating this subject today and why we need to take more action. As she said, we now live in a world where online interaction plays an ever more important role in our lives. It seems likely that when we get some normality back, online communication will still play a huge role, particularly in the world of politics.

I confess that I use Twitter. If I were not a politician, I probably would not, but it is a useful way to get a message across to a wide audience, as quickly as possible. I start from the basis that anything that helps us to communicate with the world has to be a good thing, but that has its downsides. As we have heard, it is a cesspit of abuse, hate and harassment that would not be acceptable in any other walk of life. As the hon. Member for Stroud said, that has real-life consequences. The appalling statistic that she read out, about 47% of teenagers having seen something they wish they had not seen during the first lockdown, is concerning and something that we should be looking to stamp out. She described it as the wild west; that is a thought that has crossed my mind a few times, because it seems that, like the wild west, there are no rules, no norms and no standards. That is surely not what we want to see in what should be a positive thing for the whole world.

I get a bit of abuse directed at me, like every Member, I suspect. It is nowhere near the appalling level that some Members get. As the hon. Member for Stroud said, most of the Members who get the worst abuse are women, because these trolls are often misogynist and prejudiced. They use their anonymity to project their hate on to those people. I do not mind a bit of robust debate; that is what democracy needs, but, as we saw over the pond last week, there is a line that can have serious consequences when crossed.

In my mind, there is a correlation between some of the most extreme abuse online and the anonymity of its authors. They say things they would not dream of saying to somebody’s face, and they do it behind a cloak of anonymity because they are cowards. They are inadequate people. I imagine that if the people who received the abuse read it back to them, they would feel ashamed of what they had said. They say things that they would not dream of saying to a person’s face because they have the security of a keyboard and a monitor in front of them, which seems to mean to them that there is no limit to what they can say.

Because everything online is there for us all to see, it has an impact—on occasion, a devastating one, as we have head. It is the modern equivalent of taking out a full-page advert in a newspaper. It is my view that when people are given platforms, the providers of those platforms have a responsibility to ensure that they are not abused.

I will give an example of someone who tends to post abusive posts to me most days, usually in reply to a tweet I have sent. I am not going to give them the oxygen of publicity that they obviously desperately crave by repeating what they say, but when I see those tweets they are often lies, usually highly defamatory ones. I click on the report button on Twitter, so that they are aware of my objections. Regrettably, I end up having to report that person’s tweets most days. Do I ever get any kind of response from Twitter? No, I do not. I do not know whether hon. Members have ever tried to speak to someone at Twitter or even find an email address, but it seems that it specialises in not making itself approachable. For a communications company, it is pretty awful at communicating with people who want to talk to it.

That is the point: it seems that Twitter is indifferent to the problems that its platform creates. Yes, on a few high-profile occasions it acts, but the majority of the time the most heinous lies, the most disgusting abuse and the worst forms of harassment carry on unchecked because there are no consequences for it as an organisation. If it were a newspaper, it would be sued continually and would have gone bankrupt a long time ago, but because our laws are yet to catch up with the technology, it continues to be a vehicle for lies and abuse. I agree with the hon. Member for Stroud: there needs to be much stronger regulation. The amount of fake news that has been spread during the coronavirus outbreak should be the prompt for us no longer to delay introducing the legislation we need to create some kind of accountability for the consequences of the words transmitted by these platforms.

Finally, I just want to say something about how we conduct ourselves, because we have a role in this. We must take a lead and be responsible. I have to say that the way debates are conducted in this place is always respectful and courteous. Of course, people occasionally lose their cool, but there is always an apology afterwards. That should be the standard that we want to see outside this place—not just for ourselves but for everyone involved in politics. When we see those standards slip, we should not hesitate to call it out.

Photo of Chi Onwurah Chi Onwurah Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) 2:46 pm, 13th January 2021

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship for the first time, Ms McVey. I look forward to doing so on many further occasions. I thank Damian Hinds for securing this exceptionally important debate. I also thank Siobhan Baillie for her opening remarks, which were more than those of a stand-in. They set out the concerns and the personal experience really well and illustrated why this is such an exceptionally important topic to debate. I am sure that many more Members would be here had it not been for the confusion about whether this debate would be taking place. I know that this is an issue of personal, professional and constituency concern to many Members on both sides of the House; it is not a party-political issue.

I want to start by citing the right hon. Member for East Hampshire, who is aware of the challenge of online anonymity for bullying and negative self-perception among young people. He has spoken often about that, and he noted that in 2018 the OECD found that English schools have the highest reported rates of cyber-bullying out of 48 countries. As we debate online anonymity today, we have to keep in mind the deeply troubling human impact that anonymous presence online can have, not least on our young people.

The Government ought to know about the challenge of online anonymity, because their own Commission for Countering Extremism published academic work in 2019 that noted:

“Increased anonymity is associated with increased extremist …language” on Twitter and YouTube. Tackling abuse and extremism online must mean tackling the worst parts of anonymity online.

We do not have to rely on academic work or the OECD to know the pain and harm that online anonymity can cause. The hon. Member for Stroud set out some of her experiences, and I would just like to say how sorry I was to hear of them. My hon. Friend Justin Madders set out some of his experiences with Twitter, and it is highly regrettable—it is not the first time I have heard it—that Twitter does not take complaints from Members of Parliament or members of the public seriously enough.

Just last month, we heard the strong testimony of my right hon. Friend Dame Margaret Hodge, who highlighted over 90,000 posts aimed at her. Many were antisemitic, misogynistic and ageist, and many were posted by people hidden behind anonymous screens. We know from several colleagues, from the valuable testimony of groups such as the Antisemitism Policy Trust, and from painful personal experience that online anonymity too often accompanies online abuse. Like almost all Members of Parliament, I have experienced abuse online, particularly when I dare to say something that some people might consider to be controversial. I have never been able to find out who was behind the most violent instances of such abuse.

As the Government note, there can be trade-offs in regulating online anonymity. Anonymity can be a shield for brave whistleblowers, for victims finding online refuge, or for children and minorities finding courageous self-expression. We must not forget that the internet and social media applications have many positive consequences for people who can use them. They are free and widely available, and they allow communication across generations, geography, countries and all kinds of barriers. Simply banning online anonymity is unlikely to be workable or desirable. We have to be sensitive to the trade-offs here. Protecting privacy is as much a priority in those cases as protecting against harm is in abuse cases.

However, I would say to the Minister that inaction is the worst trade-off of them all. The Secretary of State said:

“It is a challenging area, this point about anonymity,” and that the Government will do nothing on it in the proposed online safety Bill,

“But of course we will continue to keep it under review.”—[Official Report, 15 December 2020;
Vol. 686, c. 157.]

The Government are evading tough trade-offs altogether. That inaction means turning a blind eye to misinformation online. It means a failure to look at victims of abuse online—young people, minority communities and our fellow Members of Parliament—and a failure to assure them that we will do better by them. It is a failure to stand by the victims in these horrendous examples.

It does not have to be this way. Protecting whistleblowers does not need to come at the cost of protecting people who perpetrate abuse. We could do things differently. Indeed, there are already legal provisions that seek to balance anonymity and online responsibility. Norwich Pharmacal orders, or NPOs, can help obtain the identity of a party in court cases where there is alleged wrongdoing. The regulations in the Investigatory Powers Act 2016 give public authorities the ability to access communications data for potential criminal investigations. As we know, however, the sheer scale of online abuse and extremism means that there is more that we could and should do.

This is not a new issue. As I may have said in the past, my background before coming into Parliament was working in technology, particularly on the networks that now form the internet, for 20 years. The rights and wrongs of anonymity on the internet is a question that is as old as the internet itself, which we should remember is now decades old—it is no longer a rebellious teenager.

Three years ago, I attended a conference held by Ditchley on our rights and responsibilities on the internet, and the right to identity was a particular issue. One of the things that I want to emphasise to the Minister is that, as well as considering the right to anonymity on the internet, we must also consider the right to identity. For example, people should be able to prove who they are when they need to. Companies, services and Governments have a right to ask for identity in certain circumstances, as we do in the physical world. Anonymity should not be treated as a zero-sum concept, but should be qualified by the question, “Anonymous to whom and for how long?”

In real life, we can walk through a crowd without the people around us knowing who we are, but we accept that we are not permanently anonymous. If, for example, a police officer has a reason to review CCTV footage of the area, or we go into a bar and look young enough that we are asked about our age, we may be asked to prove our identity. We would not expect to be able to take out a loan or mortgage without proving our identity. Different degrees of anonymity apply to different situations in the real world. Why should we not reveal on the internet as much of our identity as is appropriate to the situation?

In some ways, as well as a question of principle, this is a question of design, on the way in which permissions and information are required and set out for applications on the internet. It is up to the Government to support a debate about how a spectrum of identity and anonymity should be implemented. A key aim should be to increase the friction that cyber-criminals face when pursuing crime. I do not think anyone is arguing that putting in place identity requirements and appropriate measures to support identification will end cyber-crime or cyber-abuse, but it would increase the friction associated with the crime, and that would help to reduce it.

We should consider a number of areas to address that, some of which have already been raised by the hon. Member for Stroud and my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston. We should consider a requirement for companies to know their customers’ identities. Contrary to the Government’s position, requiring users to selectively share their identities with online platforms does not mean that users share their identities with the world at large. Platforms can still protect users’ anonymity on the public platform while having direct access to their identities in the event of harmful behaviour.

Photo of Justin Madders Justin Madders Shadow Minister (Health and Social Care)

We know that the business model of a lot of online tech giants is based on sharing and utilising user information commercially. Does that not show that there must be a way of getting enough information on individuals? The information does not need to be circulated, but that shows that it can be found.

Photo of Chi Onwurah Chi Onwurah Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point, and one that I was just about to make by citing the “know your customer” verification requirements in financial institutions, which are part of efforts to prevent money laundering, for example.

Financial institutions, although they have improved immensely in technology over the past few years, are nowhere near as knowledgeable as the great tech giants such as Facebook, Twitter and Google in scooping up and managing data, although they tell us that they manage the data in privacy-conscious ways. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston said, their business models are driven by access to data. There are real concerns about the consolidation and monopoly control of data, which are not within the remit of this debate, but, as he suggests, the idea that these organisations cannot obtain and protect effectively the identity of their users is clearly ridiculous.

Such checks would not even require platform companies to hold user identity data themselves. Instead, as in financial services, secure, expert identity verification services could allow users to share only aspects of their identity—the minimum required to access online platforms. Again, anonymity would be guaranteed relative to other users. The fact that my bank did a “know your customer” check would not mean that my bank data was suddenly accessible to other customers. I think we accept that principle. At the same time, identity would be available to relevant law enforcement authorities in the event of suspected wrongdoing. The very act of requiring a “know your customer” check would also deter malicious agents from using the cloak of anonymity and would therefore increase the friction in the system.

As a complement to those ideas, we could require platform companies to put up deterrents against abuse and harm, ensuring that customers know that their identity could be shared with law enforcement agencies in the event of wrongdoing. I know that the Minister’s online safety legislation, which is in development, will put a duty of care on the large platforms. Perhaps she will tell us why she does not feel a more proactive duty to prevent and deter harm and abuse would not be appropriate, as it would require platforms to know their customers.

It is important to recognise that people are always customers. Even if those who use Twitter and Facebook are not paying for the service, they are still customers and are effectively paying in an exchange of data, so I feel that the model of “know your customer” is particularly appropriate. We could also consider imposing appropriate forms of liability on companies in the event that they are unable to provide identity information where courts and law enforcement require it.

None of those policies would obstruct the privacy of whistleblowers, children expressing themselves or victims finding solace and solidarity online. None of them would require companies to identify customers on their platforms to other customers. Some of them would not even require companies to have the identity data themselves, allowing the possibility of secure identity solutions held outside of these companies. Some of them are likely to be practices that already happen, but voluntarily and not systematically.

The point is not to pursue one specific policy. The point is for the Government to have a consultation and a debate that sets out policies that achieve those objectives, with a robust set of sophisticated digital identity options that can be statutorily enforced. Inaction, which is the Government’s current default of delaying action in this area, is a choice that evades trade-offs, avoids actions and lets victims down, so I ask the Minister to use this moment to tackle online anonymity head-on. We must grasp this opportunity, and to do so we must answer three questions.

First, what is the right identity verification required to place on online platforms with user-generated content? Can we ensure that those cover what might be needed for effective action against illegal and, in some instances, harmful behaviour? How can those requirements on platform companies have impact, with the right mix of incentives and sanctions for companies?

Secondly, how can we ensure that those online platforms are best co-ordinated with law enforcement authorities, where needed? Should Ofcom’s oversight of platforms’ duty-of-care performance cover how effectively companies work with law enforcement authorities? I understand, for example, that Twitter charges law enforcement officials to provide information on the identity of its users. Will the Minister verify that?

Thirdly, what confidence do we have in the jurisdictional coverage of existing and potential identity verification requirements? Do those apply to the range of internationally headquartered and popular platforms, or are Facebook, YouTube, Instagram and Twitter able to evade coverage as a result of country-of-origin principles?

I hope that the Minister will answer those questions, as the right answers could materially improve our public sphere and address the examples of online harm and abuse that have been raised in this debate. Platforms would be able to verify users easily, law enforcement authorities could pursue justice appropriately, those hiding online abuse behind anonymity would be deterred and, most of all, users would navigate online platforms with far greater assurance of no abuse or extremism.

With that final point, I will close, because the pandemic has demonstrated that our lives are lived online to an extent never before seen. Even when we return to social contact—we all hope soon—as opposed to social distance, the internet, the web and social media platforms will continue to play a greater part in our lives. The hon. Member for Stroud set out the enormous increase in online activity that we have seen as a consequence of the pandemic. I want my constituents to be able to have trust and confidence online, and in those they meet and engage with online. I want them to feel secure in their online and digital lives, because without that they will be handicapped and prevented from engaging as full citizens in what is increasingly a digital world. I ask the Minister to ensure that that digital world is as safe for everyone as the real world is.

Photo of Caroline Dinenage Caroline Dinenage Minister of State 3:08 pm, 13th January 2021

It is a great pleasure, Ms McVey, to serve under your stewardship for the first time—I hope the first of many. I wish to put on the record my thanks to my right hon. Friend Damian Hinds for securing the debate, and I thank my hon. Friend Siobhan Baillie for taking the baton so brilliantly and moving the debate forward.

Anonymous abuse online is such an important issue, and one that the Government and I take incredibly seriously. I feel that the Government’s work on online harms is more important now than ever, because, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud articulated, the online world, the digital world, has been very much the solution to so many of our problems since the outbreak of the pandemic. It has enabled us to learn online, to work online, to socialise online and to be entertained online, but it has also been the cause of a whole range of problems. That is what we need to seek to protect people against through our online harms work.

I also put on the record my thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud for standing up to some of the dreadful abuse that she has received online—for committing the awful crime of becoming a mother. It just goes to show the depths to which people will stoop to undermine our democratic way of life. In fact to operate much more democratically and better represent the people of this country we should of course have representatives among everyone, across society, including mums. The fact that she should be attacked for that is outrageous and I thank her for sharing her experiences with us so we can understand the depths to which some people will stoop, to prepare their own particular barbs. I also loved the post that she shared about her nephew, Rhys, a very joyful photograph of somebody who had just had a vaccination. Please do not ever let these dreadful people stop her making such posts, because I think they give heart and encouragement, and sustain others through an incredibly difficult period of time.

The Government recognise that there are users who hide behind this veil of anonymity to abuse others online. A minority of internet users rely on anonymity to spout hatred to, at the moment, spread anti-vax content—I have just come from a meeting about that—and to encourage dreadful things: to encourage others to self-harm or take their life. There are people up and down this country—I have spoken to the parents of young people—who have been put through the most extreme misery and have even taken their lives as a result of that, and I know that Members of Parliament are not immune in any way from such abuse from anonymous individuals. In fact, it happens across a range of different parts of society.

As, I think, Justin Madders said, in the first half of 2020, the Community Security Trust recorded an increase in online antisemitic abuse—the highest ever recorded. Much of that abuse was carried out anonymously. That behaviour is absolutely unacceptable and we are clear in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, and right across Government, that being anonymous online does not give anyone the right to abuse others. That is why we are taking steps through the online harms regulatory framework, but also through other aspects of Government work, to ensure that online abuse, whether anonymous or not, is addressed.

Our starting point, as Chi Onwurah pointed out, is that companies must take action against harmful anonymous abuse online, but at the same time it must be recognised that anonymity is important for many vulnerable individuals who want to protect their identity, such as, as has been said, a victim of domestic abuse who wants to seek support anonymously, a young person or child who is questioning their sexuality and does not want their parents to know, a whistleblower from a range of potential backgrounds, or a journalist from a country where their life could be in danger for sharing their words. To correct the hon. Lady, the Government are not evading those sorts of trade-offs. We want to confront them head on, and we hope that the measure in question will be a good starting point, to enable us to begin doing it.

A range of important issues have been raised today and I want to speak further to some of them, to outline how the Government are addressing them. If I do not reach all the answers, because I do not necessarily have all the facts and figures in front of me, I will write to the Members I miss out.

In December, we published the full Government response to the Online Harms White Paper consultation, setting out the new expectations on companies to keep their users safe online. The new framework will give digital businesses robust rules of the road that they can follow, so that we can seize the brilliance of modern technology that I have talked about, to improve our lives without fear, threat, discomfort or misery. Social media websites, apps and other services that host user-generated content or things that allow people to talk to one another online will need to remove and limit the spread of illegal content such as child sexual abuse, terrorist material and suicide content. All companies will need to tackle illegal anonymous abuse on their services and all companies will also need to assess the likelihood that children will access their services. If they do, the companies will need additional protections for them. Companies that provide services with the largest audiences or with the highest-risk features will have a legal responsibility to take action in respect of content or activity that is legal, but harmful to adults. This is because certain functionalities, such as the ability to share content widely or to contact users anonymously, are much more likely to give rise to harm, and the regulator, Ofcom, will set out in codes of practice how companies can fulfil this duty of care. This will include what measures are likely to be appropriate in the context of private communications. This could include steps towards making services safer by design, and we know that the technology in this area is improving all the time: it is becoming much easier to get people to prove who they are, verify their age, and do things like that. We are really keen on making sure we can use this technology to limit the ability of anonymous adults to contact children, for example, and for a range of other purposes as well.

We are working at pace to move forward with this online harms work. DCMS and the Home Office are working together to prepare this legislation, and it will be ready this year. It is absolutely vital that we get it right, for all the reasons that have been articulated by the small—but beautifully formed—number of people in this room today.

Photo of Caroline Dinenage Caroline Dinenage Minister of State

I will get to the end of my sentence, then I will absolutely give way. We want all parliamentarians to feed into this significant and important piece of work, so this is a starting point. We will continue to work with Members of both Houses to listen to their concerns as we move forward, and as hon. Members will be aware, the Secretary of State is minded to undertake legislative scrutiny on this. We want that to start quite shortly.

Photo of Chi Onwurah Chi Onwurah Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

I did not mean to interrupt the Minister in full flow; indeed, I am grateful for the way in which she is responding to the many issues that have been raised. There was an exchange today about whether or not exceptions to the online harms legislation would be enabled through trade deals with the US, for example, and there seemed to be some confusion over that. I wondered whether the Minister would like to take the opportunity to clarify that point.

Photo of Caroline Dinenage Caroline Dinenage Minister of State

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving me the opportunity to do so. We absolutely stand by our commitment on online harms, and are completely dedicated to it, so nothing in any trade deal—particularly the US trade deal, given that so many of these big social media companies originate there—will impact that. We will continue to promote appropriate protections for consumers online and ensure that internet users, particularly children, are safeguarded from harms. We are keen to maintain very high standards of protection for personal data, including when it is transferred across borders, and those data protection standards would never be lowered as a result of any deal with the US. I hope that that reassures the hon. Lady about our position, and I am grateful that she has given me the opportunity to put that on record.

The other thing I want to put on record is that we are very passionate about our belief, and our willingness to put out there, that companies should not wait for legislation to be in place before they start taking action to tackle online harms. I have said many times that this legislation is coming down the track, and we are not the only country in the world that is bringing forward such legislation. A vast range of measures are already available for platforms to use that could keep their users much safer online, if they want to. To help them with that, alongside the full Government response, we have published interim codes of practice on things such as preventing terrorists’ use of the internet and child sexual exploitation and abuse. Those codes of practice are voluntary, but are designed to bridge the gap until the regulator is operational, fully up and running, and able to produce its own statutory codes. My strong message to online providers is that they should start getting their house in order now, rather than wait for the legislation to bring that about.

Of course, being anonymous online does not give anybody the right to abuse others. The police have a range of legal powers to identify individuals who attempt to use anonymity to escape sanctions for online abuse where the activity is illegal; I have not heard before that Twitter charges for supporting that work, but I will certainly look into it. The Investigatory Powers Act allows police to acquire communications data such as an email address and the location of the device from which the illegal anonymous abuse was sent, and they can use that data as evidence in court. In fact, in 2017-18, the majority of communications data requests from public authorities were for subscriber information. Subscriber information requests seek to identify the user of a telephone, an email address or a social media account, for example. In 96% of cases, the applicant identified the subject of the request as the suspect in the investigation.

The Government are undertaking a review with law enforcement to ensure that the current powers that it has are sufficient to tackle illegal anonymous abuse online. Because the online world is so fast-moving, we want to ensure that our law enforcement agencies are fully equipped to be able to do that. The outcome of that work will inform the Government’s position in relation to illegal anonymous abuse online and, of course, the online harms regulatory framework.

In addition, to ensure that the criminal law is fit for purpose to deal with online abuse, we have instructed the Law Commission to review existing legislation on abusive and harmful communications. The commission has highlighted in its consultation the fact that it acknowledges that anonymity online often facilitates and encourages abusive behaviours. It combines with—the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston pointed this out—the lack of restraint that an individual feels when they are communicating online, compared with communicating in person.

I have had experience of that myself. People have posted on Facebook, “I’m going to go and see that Ms Dinenage and give her a piece of my mind. I’m turning up here, at this time, on this date. I’m going to be there.” That has never materialised in real life, for which I am very thankful, but you can imagine how frightening it is. People have a lot of bravado when hidden behind a screen or keyboard, and it is very difficult to know whether that bravado could tip over into real life. There is a lack of restraint online, compared with in person, and abusive behaviours such as pile-on harassment and cyber-flashing are much easier to engage in, at a practical level, via the anonymity of these platforms.

As part of the review, the Government have asked the Law Commission to examine how the criminal law will address the encouragement or assistance of self-harm as well. That is something that is incredibly distressing. As the Minister who took over this role, I have found that one of the hardest conversations that I have had to have is with young people who have been incited to self-harm or, indeed, to take their own life online.

The Law Commission has consulted on its proposed reforms, and a final report is expected early this year. We are going to consider very carefully using the online harms legislation to bring its final recommendations into law where it is appropriate to do so. We are really committed to tackling all harms online, including anonymous abuse. The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central talked about sanctions. We want to ensure that Ofcom has the ability to use sanctions. They are tough—up to 10% of global turnover. We will not shy away from that—it is more than is being proposed by the equivalent European legislation, for example—because we know that anonymous abuse can have such a significant impact on victims. We have all seen a little bit of it ourselves, but we know that there are people outside the House who are much more broadly affected than we are. Whether someone is a member of the public, a high-profile public figure or a child subject to the most awful abuse outside the school gates, where they just cannot escape it, it is really important that we have a regulatory framework that adequately addresses this issue, while also protecting the value of freedom of expression. We have always to keep that in our minds as well. It is vital that we tread that line very carefully. It is vital that we get the legislation right.

We want all parliamentarians to be able to feed into this really significant and important piece of work. As the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central said, there would have been a lot more people here today in normal circumstances. My door is always open, because I want to continue to work with Members of both Houses to listen to their concerns as we move forward.

Photo of Chi Onwurah Chi Onwurah Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

I thank the Minister for giving way again, and thank her again for the tone in which she is responding to issues. May I summarise the position—without putting words in the Minister’s mouth—by saying that online anonymity is not currently directly addressed in the proposed legislation, but it could be if there was thought to be sufficient reason to do so? Is that a fair summary?

Photo of Caroline Dinenage Caroline Dinenage Minister of State

That will be addressed in a number of the broader protections. I was very taken with what the hon. Member said—I wrote down the words she used—about the importance of the right to identity, as well as the right to anonymity.

We really want to get this piece of legislation right. The other day, somebody raised with me the analogy of the invention of the motorcar. The internet is such a big invention that it is almost like that. With the advent of the motor car, we did not put in place seatbelts, airbags, the highway code or even the driving test—my grandfather did not take one—from the outset. Some of those innovations had to come down the track, but I really want to put in place as many protections for the internet from the outset as we can. I want to make this piece of legislation as robust, powerful, far-reaching and successful as possible. That is why I am not taking anything off the table. I want genuinely to put this legislation through pre-legislative scrutiny, take the comments of both Houses and ensure that, when we move forward, we do so in the best possible way. That is why we will continue to keep the area of anonymity under review as we progress with the online safety legislation.

Photo of Siobhan Baillie Siobhan Baillie Conservative, Stroud 3:26 pm, 13th January 2021

I will not take much time. I really appreciate all the contributions and listening to the Minister and the shadow Minister. It is quite clear from listening to even the few people here that this is a really complex area. There is no one solution or quick fix that we can make. It was also helpful to hear from Justin Madders about the part that tech companies need to play. This cannot and should not all fall to Government. The tech companies are smart-thinking and already have the tech at their fingertips. They can act, they can respond to people and they can fix things far quicker than they already do.

The Government are clearly doing an awful lot of thinking about anonymity and how to protect people from abuse from anonymous accounts. However, I respectfully suggest to the Minister that I do not feel that that flows through in the paperwork that we have for the White Paper, or the consultation so far. This is such a big area, and such a focus of the public when we talk about online harms, that it would be helpful if, when mentioning online harms, anonymity is addressed specifically and we think through the regulations and the particular actions that the tech companies and Government can take to address it, because it is important. Thank you, Mrs McVey, for your stewardship.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House
has considered online anonymity.

Sitting suspended.