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Failure to prevent repeated online abuse should lead to fines for social media companies, say MPs

1 February 2022

The Petitions Committee report welcomes the Government’s planned Online Safety Bill and calls for the duties it would place on social media companies to deal with abuse aimed at adults on their platforms to be strengthened. However, it also acknowledges that tackling online abuse cannot be achieved tackled just by changing what people can see or post on social media, and the problem must also be addressed by challenging the attitudes that fuel such behaviour and ensuring abusive users face legal sanctions where appropriate.

Key recommendations made in the report include:

  • Social media companies should face fines if they cannot demonstrate to Ofcom that they are successfully preventing people who have been banned from the platform for abusive behaviour from setting up new accounts
  • Social media platforms should be required to give users the option to link their account to a form of verified ID on a voluntary basis and block interactions with unverified users, as a way of tackling abuse posted from anonymous or ‘throwaway’ accounts
  • The Government’s Online Safety Bill should require social media companies to demonstrate they have taken proportionate steps to protect adult users from the risk of facing legal but harmful abuse on their platforms, which should include – but not be limited to – enforcing their own rules on acceptable content
  • The Online Safety Bill should also name abuse and hate speech aimed at people on the basis of characteristics including race, sexuality, gender or disability as content social media platforms must address as a priority, in recognition of the disproportionate levels of abuse aimed at these groups
  • The Government should re-examine whether the police and prosecutors have the resources they need to effectively investigate and enforce the law on online abuse where appropriate, including the powers and resources they need to trace users who post abuse anonymously.

The inquiry

This new report follows the Committee’s inquiry last year into tackling online abuse, which was prompted by a number of e-petitions calling for action to be taken on this issue. In 2021, a petition calling for verified ID to be made a requirement for opening a social media account received almost 700,000 signatures in six months, with over 500,000 people signed in the weeks following the racist abuse aimed at England footballers after the 2020 European Championships final. This was the most popular petition on the Committee’s website in 2021, showing the scale of concern among the public about the risk of facing abuse on these platforms and the desire to see abusive users held accountable.

In a series of evidence sessions in late 2021, the Committee heard from a range of witnesses including civil society and campaign groups, experts on legal, regulatory and technological responses to online harms, and social media companies Meta, TikTok and Twitter. It also questioned Chris Philp MP, Minister for Tech and the Digital Economy on the issues raised in these evidence sessions. The Committee also sought the views of young people on how the Government and social media companies should respond to online abuse via a series of specially designed sessions with secondary school pupils, and over 500 students’ suggestions were fed back to the Committee.

Chair’s comment

Chair of the Petitions Committee, Catherine McKinnell MP, said:

“Online abuse is a silent menace, and this report sets out our recommendations to help tackle the enormous harm it causes and ensure perpetrators face appropriate consequences for their actions.

“We spoke to school students across the country who told us they felt that experiencing online abuse is simply a normal part of being online. This is incredibly alarming, and highlights how important it is that we address this issue.

“The problem of banned users returning to social media platforms and continuing to send abuse was raised in Bobby Norris’ petition, which prompted our inquiry. We heard that social media companies need to put a higher priority on preventing this kind of repeat offending, and the Government should ensure this is part of companies’ new online safety obligations.

“Even where abuse may not reach a criminal threshold, it can still significantly impact people who receive it, including not just their health but also their ability to express themselves freely online. Social media platforms should be taking proactive steps to create safer online spaces for all.

“I will be leading a debate on online abuse later this month to enable MPs to discuss the important issues raised by the petitions we have received on this issue, the Government’s Online Safety Bill, and the recommendations we have made in our report.

“We look forward to receiving the Government’s response to our report, and the Committee will continue to hold the Government to account on this issue on behalf of petitioners as the Online Safety Bill makes its way through Parliament.”

What happens next?

The Petitions Committee have submitted the report to the Government for consideration, and expects to receive a prompt response from the Government on this issue.

Further information

Image: Adem Ay via Unsplash