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

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.