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Online abuse law not fit for purpose, says Petitions Committee

22 January 2019

The Petitions Committee today publishes its report "Online abuse and the experience of disabled people", revealing the extreme level of abuse that disabled people receive online.

The disabled people who took part in the inquiry were enthusiastic users of social media, but many were driven from online platforms while their "abusers went unchecked."

The inquiry was triggered by a petition started by Katie Price, who has a disabled child, which attracted 221,914 signatures before it closed early due to the 2017 General Election. 

It talked about online abuse directed at people from all backgrounds, but also highlighted shocking abuse directed at her disabled son, Harvey.

The petition called on the Government to "make online abuse a specific criminal offence and create a register of offenders."

The Petitions Committee agrees with Katie Price's petition that the law on online abuse is not fit for purpose.

The report recommendations were made after listening to disabled people during the inquiry and in consultation events, where it was heard that online abuse can destroy people's careers, social lives and cause lasting damage to their health.

It also took oral evidence from Google, Facebook and Twitter, representatives from the police and disability campaigners.

Key areas covered by the report include:

  • The Government must accept that self-regulation of social media has failed.
  • The Government and social media companies must directly consult with disabled people on digital strategy and hate crime law.
  • Social media companies need to accept their responsibility for allowing toxic environments to exist unchallenged.
  • The Government needs to recognise that the way disabled people are often marginalised offline plays a significant part in the abuse they receive online. It must challenge stereotypes and prejudices about disabled people, particularly among children and young people, and require proportionate representation of disabled people in its advertising.
  • Disability hate crime is not fully recognised and perpetrators are not appropriately punished. The law on hate crime must give disabled people the same protections as those who suffer hate crime due to race or religion.
  • The criminal justice system is too quick to categorise disabled people as “vulnerable”. Hostility towards disabled people is often based on a perception that they are an easy target who can't contribute to society.
  • It must be possible to see if someone has been convicted of a hate crime on the grounds of disability before employing them to work closely with disabled people. If the Government acts on our other recommendations, this should be possible through a Disclosure and Barring Service check.
  • The Government must review the experience of disabled people when reporting crimes and giving evidence. Too many disabled people have not been treated seriously because frontline officers and staff do not understand disability.
  • The Government needs to review the law on exploitation within friendships or relationships, often called “mate crime”. Social media companies need to review their processes and provide advice and support for those who identify as needing additional protection. It found this so-called “mate crime” can lead to financial, physical and sexual exploitation.

Disabled people have been forced off social media 

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 horrendous, degrading and dehumanising comments about disabled people.

The law on online abuse is not fit for purpose and it is truly shameful that disabled people have been forced off social media while their abusers face no consequences.

There is no excuse for the continued failure to make online platforms as safe for disabled people as non-disabled people.

Self-regulation has failed disabled people and the law must change to ensure more lives are not destroyed."

Organisations unwilling to act

Another worrying finding was when organisations were made aware of serious problems with abuse of disabled people, they were unwilling to act.

As part of the inquiry, a high proportion of abusive content against disabled people, including Harvey Price, was related to football.

The report stated:

"It is deeply disappointing that the footballing organisations with whom we raised concerns about abusive behaviour expressed no interest in addressing the problem.

Their lack of response is shameful."

Further information

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