Written evidence submitted by the Professional Players Federation
Evidence from the Professional Players Federation to the Inquiry into the Draft Online Safety Bill by the DCMS Sub-Committee on Online Harms and Disinformation
The Professional Players Federation (PPF) was founded in 1991. We represent the collective interests of twelve player associations based in the United Kingdom covering a range of professional sports. Through the membership we represent around 17,500 professional sportsmen and women.
The PPF warmly welcomes the decision by the Sub-Committee to hold an inquiry into the Draft Online Safety Bill. This submission gives a collective response of the player associations on the important issue of the Government’s draft online safety bill.
Whilst the Online Safety Bill covers much more than just online abuse of players, the PPF will limit its submission to abuse of players as this is an important issue for all of our members. Online abuse is an area where the Government has made clear commitments to protect footballers (and presumably players from other sports as well) from being abused online through the new legislation.
Earlier this year, the Secretary of State at DCMS, the Rt Hon Oliver Dowden CBE MP, held a round-table with a number of professional footballers to hear their experiences of online abuse.
Following on from these round-tables the Secretary of State made a clear commitment that he had heard the harm and hurt that online racist abuse of players caused and that the new Bill would prevent this from happening with huge fines for social media companies that did not protect players from such abuse.
This commitment was reiterated by the Prime Minister in July after the vile abuse suffered by England players after losing the penalty shootout in the Euro 2020 Final at Wembley.
Whilst the PPF welcomes the commitments from Government to address online abuse of athletes, the legislation is undoubtedly wide ranging and complicated and it is currently unclear how this commitment will work in practice.
Racism within the Bill
On 15 July 2021 a press release from the Prime Minister announced that “Racist abuse will be designated a priority harm in the legislation [the Online safety Bill].”
The PPF fully supports the above intention but it is unclear whether the Bill as it currently stands will deliver this promise.
We note that there is no mention of racism within the draft Bill which is an unfortunate oversight.
Our understanding of the draft Bill is that the only priorities spelt out within the Bill are terrorism and child abuse.
We would strongly encourage the Government and the Sub-Committee to ensure that online abuse of players is designated as a priority harm within the legislation as promised by the Prime Minister.
If an area is designated a priority harm, then it appears that the social media companies are required to prevent it appearing by the use of filtering tools, reduce the time it is visible and remove it as soon as it is identified. These are all things that the Government has committed to do for online abuse of players which must be specifically defined as a priority harm.
More than racism
Whilst racist abuse of footballers has made the headlines, the abuse of players is of course wider than just football affecting every professional sport. The abuse also covers a whole range of protected characteristics including gender, sexual orientation and religion to name but a few of the issues about which players face online abuse every day.
Online abuse based upon other protected characteristics, such as gender, sexuality and religion, needs to be treated the same as online racist abuse.
Harmful to adults and children
We would encourage the Sub Committee to seek clarification as to whether abusive comments on players social media posts will be classified as harmful to adults or children or both.
Given the huge popularity of professional sportsmen and women’s social media posts with children it seems likely that abusive comments to players are currently being seen by children and as such should be considered as harmful to both children and adults.
It would also be helpful to learn whether young professional sportspeople aged 16-18 are offered a higher level of protection from abusive posts due to being classified as children by the legislation.
Wishing cancer on people
The PPF is unclear as to whether the Bill currently will protect players from online abusers wishing them and their families harm and serious illness. It is unfortunately depressingly common for many athletes (especially jockeys) to receive vile abuse from disgruntled punters, who have lost money betting on sport, wishing harm upon athletes and their families.
We believe that the Bill would be improved by more clearly defining what abuse is covered by the legislation.
Due to the difference in the draft Bill between content harmful to children and adults it may well be the case that wishing cancer (or serious harm) upon a player’s child is treated differently to wishing cancer (or serious harm) on their mother or father.
Government needs to decide whether it is acceptable and legal for online abusers to wish cancer, death and serious harm upon players, their partners and children.
There is an issue with the use of anonymous social media accounts being set up specifically to abuse people. The PPF supports moves to require all users of social media to provide a name and address. It is unfortunate that the draft Bill has chosen not to address this issue.
As a minimum, social media companies need to be required to actively assist investigations into abusive accounts through the provision of as much identifiable details as they have access to.
The Bill should also require social media companies to put in place measures to prevent banned users from opening new anonymous accounts.
The PPF and its members were disappointed and surprised that individuals will not able to make complaints to OFCOM about online abuse and the failure of social media companies to take action on reports. We believe that this needs to be addressed within the legislation.
We would also welcome Government guidance and clarification within the Bill on whether professional player associations and trade unions would be able to make “super” complaints on behalf of their members?
People who break the law online should expect to be held accountable – through criminal charges as well as effective bans from social media.
The PPF was encouraged to read that the police charged 12 people after the high-profile racist abuse of England players following the Euro 2020 final this summer. It is essential to combatting online abuse that the police and Crown Prosecution Service take an active role in investigating and charging abusers. People posting online abuse need to know that they risk a criminal record as well as bans from social media for their actions.
The new Bill must not undermine existing recourse to the law. It would not be acceptable if the new law reduced the willingness of police forces and the CPS to prosecute online harms due to the regulation by Ofcom.
The PPF is of the opinion that there may be merit in a dedicated agency with powers to investigate and bring criminal charges for online abuse. There is a real worry that the police and CPS do not have the resources to effectively police social media abuse.
The PPF welcomes this investigation into the draft Online Safety Bill and would be pleased to expand upon this submission should the sub-committee considers it helpful.
We are strongly supportive of the Government’s commitment to address the online abuse of sportspeople. However, we remain to be convinced that the draft Bill will fulfil the Prime Minister’s and Secretary of State’s promises to players.
It is essential that the Bill delivers the Prime Ministers promise on 15th July 2021 that ““Racist abuse will be designated a priority harm in the legislation.”