Political foes have joined forces to demand ministers support a backbench MPs’ bid to tackle online hate, fake news and radicalisation.
The cross-party group of MPs says unregulated “echo chambers” are allowing the online spread of abuse, including racist conspiracy theories, revenge porn and illegal trading.
Together, they are demanding the government allows MPs parliamentary time to debate and vote on legislation tabled by Labour MP Lucy Powell in the new year, which would make administrators and moderators legally responsible for posts.
Powell’s Online Forums Bill had its second reading on Friday November 23 but there is now no chance it will be voted on - an essential step for the legislation to progress and become law - without government support.
The move sees some unlikely alliances formed, as the letter to Commons leader Andrea Leadsom includes the names of hardline Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg, Labour remainer David Lammy, campaigning feminist MP Jess Phillips and former Tory Treasury minister Nicky Morgan.
The bill would establish accountability in law for what’s posted in large online forums, by making administrators and moderators of such groups legally liable for what they publish on their forums. It would also prevent forums with thousands of members being hidden from the police and anti-racism charities.
The Communications Act 2003, which is used to police online discourse, was passed before Facebook, Twitter, or Reddit had been created, the MPs’ letter points out.
It adds: “It is time our laws caught up with the realities of the 21st century.”
Powell, Labour MP for Manchester Central, says online hate, radicalisation and fake news is increasingly moving offline and having a real-world impact, with terrorists behind the Finsbury Mosque attack and Philadelphia radicalised online.
Powell said: “The spread of online hate, fake news and radicalisation is prolific. We need action now to put decency back into our online discourse, politics and public life.
“The moderators and administrators of large online forums need to be as accountable. Whilst there are many well managed and well-meaning online forums, there are some which are used to propagate hate, fake news, misogyny, racism and other illegal acts.
“It’s only right that people who manage these groups have responsibility for what is published in them. They are not innocent bystanders. That’s why we need ministers to support the Online Forums Bill and ensure the House of Commons can debate and pass this Bill.”
The letter in full
Dear Andrea Leadsom/Jeremy Wright
We write to you as the author and co-sponsors of the Online Forums Bill, which was before the House of Commons for its second reading on Friday 23 November, to request that the bill be heard in government time.
The Online Forums Bill would make administrators and moderators of online forums over a certain size responsible for content published on their forums; would require administrators and moderators to remove certain harmful and damaging content; and require platforms to publish information about such forums.
Social media has altered our society enormously, in ways we have yet to fully comprehend. While the medium has undoubtedly brought many positive changes, its use to promote racism, abuse, bigotry, and violence concerns us all. The effects of social media in shaping the nature of today’s democratic conduct and engagement have also been profound.
Yet, the piece of legislation currently used to police online discourse, The Communications Act 2003, was passed before Facebook, Twitter, or Reddit had been created. Its drafters and the parliamentarians who debated and voted to pass the bill into law can’t have predicted the changes to the ways we communicate over the past fifteen years. Nor will they have foreseen how those with malign intent are able to exploit the openness of social media to spread their hate and disinformation.
As the misuse of social media in many different ways is being exposed, legislative houses around the world are deciding how to address it. For instance, Germany, where a Warwick University study found a direct casuistic correlation between Facebook use and violent attacks against refugees, this year began enforcing a law which makes social media companies liable for large fines if they fail to remove hate speech, fake news, or illegal material.
Whether or not we choose to take a different approach in Britain, it is only right that our parliament is now also permitted to have its say on how we tackle online criminality. It is time our laws caught up with the realities of the 21st century. As the Online Forums Bill is one of 140 listed for their second reading at the end of this month, there will not be opportunity then to give it the consideration this subject requires. We therefore request you provide for such an opportunity when space in the government’s legislative timetable becomes available.
Lucy Powell MP
Cosigned by: Robert Halfon MP; Nicky Morgan MP; Bob Neill MP; Jacob Rees Mogg MP; Jess Phillips MP; David Lammy MP; Stella Creasey MP; Luciana Berger MP; Anna Soubry MP and Ruth Smeeth MP.