Published: 14:26, 14 December 2021
| Updated: 15:51, 14 December 2021
It has been hailed by the government as an unprecedented crackdown on social media abuse and online hate crime.
And according to the Prime Minister, the new Online Safety Bill could also prove a vital weapon in the battle to tackle the criminal gangs smuggling people across the Channel. Political editor Paul Francis reports.
Under tougher laws designed to curb cyberbullying, social media companies have been put on notice that they will have to do much more to tackle the spread of online harassment.
The internet has become a dark place for many users, who experience almost continuous hate and abuse, seemingly with little to protect them.
And so a committee of MPs, chaired by Folkestone and Hythe MP Damian Collins, has this week urged the government to toughen up its plans even further.
It says that named company bosses of tech giants should also be made personally liable in court for failures to deal with inappropriate material posted online.
But can the virtual Wild West be brought to heel and could removing anonymity have a chilling effect on whistle-blowers?
What is the government’s Online Safety Bill?
The proposals are the government’s response to widespread concerns about online hate crime and harassment which has increased massively in recent years.
According to ministers, the new law will see much firmer action against both individuals who post material deemed to be harassment or bullying as well as social media platforms who fail to either remove or block those posting unacceptable comments or material on their sites.
It will also cover websites, apps and other services hosting user-generated content or allowing people to talk to others online.
A key requirement under the new law will require social media companies to be responsible for removing and limiting the spread of illegal and harmful content such as child sexual abuse, terrorist material and suicide content.
Why is the government intervening now?
The clamour for a much more forceful approach to the issue of dealing with hate online has been rising.
Its victims range from politicians at both local and national level, celebrities and sportsmen and women through to young children.
Public confidence in online safety has fallen, particularly surrounding the risks to children.
Despite the fact we are now using the internet more than ever, more than three quarters of UK adults are concerned about going online.
Fewer parents feel the benefits outweigh the risks of their children being online – falling from 65% in 2015 to 55% in 2019.
The Bill focuses particularly on how to protect children and young people online from a range of risks, such as grooming, revenge porn, hate speech, images of child abuse and posts relating to suicide and eating disorders.
Research shows that 12 to 17-year-olds are the most active online with girls sending around 3,952 messages a month, significantly more than boys, who send on average 2,815 messages a month.
Much of this is harmless online activity but an escalating number cross the line from what is considered appropriate to activity that amounts to harassment or bullying and race hate.
Tragic cases like teenager Molly Russell, who took her own life after viewing material on Instagram, have only highlighted the need for action.
Will posting anonymously be banned?
This is one of the major issues but the Bill as it stands does not explicitly forbid people posting without revealing their identity or put “new limits on online anonymity”.
However, under the new duty of care, all companies would be expected to address anonymous abuse that is illegal through “effective systems and processes”.
That said, the new minister for culture, media and sport, Nadine Dorries, has revealed that further work is to be done to make sure tech firms act.
She says the government has decided to "re-examine how our legislation can go even further to ensure the biggest social media companies properly protect users from anonymous abuse".
What powers currently exist to deal with the issue?
Online trolling is a criminal offence that can be prosecuted under the Malicious Communications Act 1983 and the Communications Act 2003.
The law captures anyone who sends to another material that is indecent or grossly offensive, or a threat, or false and known or believed to be false by the sender.
The mental element of the offence is the intention to cause distress or anxiety to the recipient.
However, where prosecutions are being considered, the Crown Prosecution Service has to be convinced they are in the public interest.
How will the new law affect freedom of expression and public debate?
The government claims the new law will usher in “a new era of accountability and protections for democratic debate”.
There are measures said to strengthen people’s rights to express themselves freely online, while protecting journalism and democratic political debate.
This will cover content defined as ‘democratically important’.
This will include content promoting or opposing government policy or a political party ahead of a vote in Parliament, election or referendum, or campaigning on a live political issue.
'This is a once-in-a-generation piece of legislation that will update our laws for the digital age.'
What do our politicians think of the plans?
They are broadly supportive:
Folkestone and Hythe MP Damian Collins MP is the chair of the Joint Committee on the Bill.
He said: “The Online Safety Bill is about finally putting a legal framework around hate speech and harmful content, and ultimately holding the tech giants to account for the role their technology plays in promoting it.
"This is a once-in-a-generation piece of legislation that will update our laws for the digital age.”
'Unfortunately, we have to use these platforms to do our job as MPs but the abuse has been off the scale.'
South Thanet MP Craig Mackinlay said: “I feel sure that when this period of human history is written, social media will be deemed probably the worst invention of the age with wasted time, bullying, hate and viciousness top of the negative attributes.
“The Bill will try to address some of these issues but will never be foolproof.
"If you want to disagree with me or colleagues – feel free to do so, but opposition is best expounded without expletives and threats.
"We can all do our bit to dial down towards a friendlier and cohesive community.”
And Labour's Canterbury MP Rosie Duffield said: “Unfortunately, we have to use these platforms to do our job as MPs but the abuse has been off the scale.
"Some of the things I have read about myself have been libellous.
"I have been thinking whether I should be encouraging women to enter politics. Some of the things are complete fiction; most of the time I choose not to respond.
"The reason why I have not considered legal action is because it would take so much energy, it would divert me from the job I have to do. The anonymity has to be tackled.”