Online Anonymity — [Esther McVey in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:08 pm on 13th January 2021.

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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.