New database for register of ‘online abusers’ not needed, say MPs

SUMMARY:

Katie Price’s petition to make online abuse a specific crime gained more than 221,000 signatures. It highlighted the specific problems disabled people experience online.

Katie Price giving evidence to MPs

For too long the experiences of disabled people and their families online have been ignored in the conversations around internet safety, regulation and protection against abuse. Katie Price, business woman and reality TV star, is changing this and recently urged the government to make online abuse a specific crime, after her son Harvey, who has a genetic condition called Prader-Willi syndrome, experienced horrible abuse at the hands of online trolls.

Katie Price recently gave evidence to MPs on the House of Commons Petitions Committee, who have this week published a report, stating that the absence of disabled people’s voices from the government’s internet safety strategy is “shocking”.

However, MPs rejected Price’s calls for a separate offenders database, similar to the sex offenders list, to be created for those who are found guilty of trolling people online.

Price’s petition stated:

Trolling is a major problem in this day and age. People of all ages and background suffer every day, including my family – especially my son Harvey. I have tried my best to expose people and even had two arrested but nothing was done and there were no repercussions or penalties for this behaviour.

This does not affect just high profile people it affects everyone from every walk of life from young children, teenagers, people at work, husbands and wives. This abuse includes racism, homophobia, body shaming and a whole range of other hate speech.

This petition is an important topical issue and I want it to help bring justice to everyone who has ever suffered at the hands of trolls. Help me to hammer home worldwide that bullying is unacceptable whether it’s face to face or in an online space.

The government has recently said that it is planning to implement new laws and regulate social media platforms in order to better protect users from online abuse and disinformation. In its response to last October’s Internet Safety Strategy green paper, the government said that there is a disconnect between the measures technology companies have put in place and the experience of users online. However, little reference has been made, until now, about how to better protect disabled people online.

The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and the Home Office will jointly work on a White Paper with other government departments, to be published later this year. This will set out legislation to be brought forward that aims to tackle a range of both legal and illegal harms, from cyberbullying to online child sexual exploitation. The Government will continue to collaborate closely with industry on this work.

The report

However, today’s report notes that the government has not acknowledge the problems faced by disabled people online in its internet safety strategy. MPs on the Committee write that “we hope that the inquiry will be a wake up call to the government…they must ensure that the voices of disabled people are always heard”.

The first recommendation from the Committee is that the government needs to acknowledge the importance of the internet to disabled people and to commit to ensuring that the internet is no more dangerous for those with disabilities than those without.

The Committee states that it expects the government to include disabled people explicitly in all consultations, including on digital strategy, and that all consultations must be accessible to all disabled people, including adults with learning disabilities.

It adds that social media companies have been neglecting the needs of their disabled users too and MPs on the Committee were disappointed that some didn’t even seem to know what “Easy Read” is. The Committee has called on social media companies to take urgent action to tackle abuse of disabled people not heir platforms.

It recommends that social media companies be required to ensure that terms and conditions, community standards, account policies and other forms of guidance are accessible to all disabled people. Social media companies should also be required to ensure that systems for reporting abuse are accessible to all disabled people.

Committee Chair, Helen Jones MP, said:

Our inquiry into online abuse and the experience of disabled people has shown that social media is rife with vile, degrading and dehumanising comments about people with disabilities. It’s time for action.

We’ve listened to disabled people to come up with our recommendations to tackle online abuse of disabled people and we will spend the summer listening to them again. By launching this consultation, we want to make it clear that the voices of disabled people must be heard.

In the Petitions Committee, we work hard to ensure that our work reflects what the people who petition Parliament think and feel. When we want to know what people think, we ask them. It should be normal practice for Select Committees to consult on their recommendations, so I’m pleased that the Petitions Committee is taking this step.

It is deeply disappointing that social companies don’t engage fully with their disabled users. With their vast financial resources, there’s no excuse for their failure to make their platforms as safe for disabled people as they are for other users.

We were shocked to hear that in 2018 the Government still don’t ensure that the needs of all communities are considered when looking at digital policy. Parliament and Government are there to serve the people, and neither can do that if we don’t include them in the conversation.

The law

MPs on the Committee agree with Price that the current law on online abuse and hate crime is not fit for purpose. And that this is particularly worrying when it comes to hate crimes against disabled people. It notes that “hate crimes do not treat all protected characteristics equally”.

For example, under current laws, it is a crime to incite hatred because of religion or race, but not disability.

The Law Commission reviewed hate crime laws in 2016, but the government has still not responded to its recommendations.

The Committee has recommended that the government should make it a specific crime to incite hatred because of disability. It adds that it is not enough to keep repeating “what is illegal online is illegal offline” and that it expects the government to bring forward legislation by 2020.

However, whilst Price has called for a “register of offenders”, MPs on the Committee don’t agree that a separate database, similar to the sex offenders register, is needed. But it does suggest that the government should look at different ways to enable employers to find out if a person has been convicted of online abuse.

My take

The experiences of disabled people – both online and offline – are just as important as anyone else’s and the government needs to protect disabled people, just like anyone else. Katie Price’s campaign has highlighted just how much work the government and social media companies have to do.

Image credit - Via YouTube