Facebook And Twitter Face New Legal Move To Crack Down On Online Abuse

Plans to force social media firms to report trolls to police, delete posts
HStocks via Getty Images

Facebook and Twitter could be legally forced to tackle abusive online trolls under a fresh crackdown considered by Parliament.

The two US internet giants and other social media firms face a tough new statutory code of practice that would require them to report to the police any threats of physical harm and to delete any posts that could incite violence.

The measures, backed by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Anti-Semitism, are contained in fresh amendments to the Digital Economy Bill tabled on Thursday.

Labour peer Baroness Jones of Whitchurch, who is backed by Lib Dem colleagues, will expect ministers to respond to the proposals amid continuing alarm at the scale of online abuse, particularly against women and Jews.

Anti-semitic grafitti
Anti-semitic grafitti

The move comes as the Community Safety Trust reported that anti-semtic hate-crime had soared by a third to reach record levels last year.

Although Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat are all based in the US, several countries from Germany to France and Australia are considering laws to force them into taking stronger action on abuse.

A new clause to the Digital Economy Bill requires social media firms to:

(a) undertake and publish an online safety impact assessment in respect of their account holders,
(b) inform the police if they become aware of any threat on its internet site to physically harm an individual,
(c) remove any posts made on its internet site that are deemed to be violent or that could incite violence.”

A further clause would create an “online abuse” code of conduct for commercial social media companies, issued by the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, which would include a requirement to enforce appropriate privacy settings for under-18s.

Companies would be required to performa ‘safety impact assessment’ or ‘risk assessment’ for new products with the potential for abuse.

The clauses have been drafted by the APPG on anti-semitism, but also by The Digital Trust, which supports victims of cyberstalking and other crimes.

Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg
Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg
Esteban Felix/AP

Civil liberties and free speech campaigners, as well as the companies themselves, may object to the plans.

But the Government is on record as saying it is open to statutory moves if the industry cannot do more voluntarily to stamp out abuse.

Former digital economy minister Ed Vaizey said last year he would “never rule out appropriate regulation to push the responsibility for some of the appalling abuse that we see day in, day out on to social media”

“It is not enough..to view platforms as passive vehicles. They are extremely wealthy companies that rely on a large number of users to generate the advertising that creates their shareholders’ wealth. There needs to be partnership, and I do not rule out regulation.”

Luciana Berger outside the Old Bailey, where troll Joshua Bonehill-Paine was jailed for anti-Jewish rants
Luciana Berger outside the Old Bailey, where troll Joshua Bonehill-Paine was jailed for anti-Jewish rants
Jonathan Brady/PA Wire

Labour MP Luciana Berger, who has been subjected to vile anti-Semitic abuse, welcomed the new moves.

A man was convicted last year of harassing the MP, including publishing posts calling her a “Filthy Jew Bitch” and an “evil money-grabber”.

She told HuffPost UK: “For too long, social media companies have not done enough to adequately protect their users from harassment, abuse and physical threats on their platforms.

“Baroness Jones’s amendments seek to address this inaction, in a similar vein to law changes adopted in other countries. I sincerely hope the government responds positively.”

In Australia, companies are required to have a complaints management system, terms of use prohibiting cyberbullying and referral to a relevant ombudsmen for complaints deemed inadequately dealt with.

The German Government are considering introducing legislation enabling them to institute fines of up to half a million Europe’s for social media companies failing to act on hate speech online.

A French court forced Twitter to provide details of user accounts following a case brought by the French Union Jewish Students relating to an antisemitic hashtag that had been trending in France.

Twitter founder and chief Jack Dorsey said on Tuesday that he was taking the issue of abuse seriously.

Former Twitter CEO Dick Costolo said this week that “I wish I could turn back the clock and go back to 2010 and stop abuse on the platform by creating a very specific bar for how to behave on the platform.”

Meanwhile, the Community Security Trust (CST), which monitors anti-Semitism, recorded 1,309 incidents in 2016 - surpassing the previous high of 1,182 in 2014. Mark Gardner, from the CST, said anti-Semites currently felt “emboldened”.


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