Written evidence submitted by Mencap



Mencap’s evidence for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Sub-Committee on Online Harms and Disinformation inquiry into ‘Online Safety and Online Harms’


About Royal Mencap Society and learning disability


  1. Our vision is for the UK to be the best place in the world for people with a learning disability to live happy and healthy lives. We do this by supporting the 1.5 million people with a learning disability in the UK and their families, improving health and care services as well as access to education and employment. We also directly support over 5,000 people with a learning disability to live their lives the way they want.


  1. A learning disability is caused by the way the brain develops before, during or shortly after birth. It is always lifelong and affects intellectual and social development.




  1. We know that being online and using social media can be a great way for many people with a learning disability to connect with others. Sadly, we know that people with a learning disability tend to have fewer friends, are less likely to be in a relationship, and have fewer opportunities for socialising than the general population. Research suggests that 1 in 3 young people with a learning disability spend less than 1 hour outside their home on a typical Saturday (Mencap, 2019).[1]


  1. Children and adults with a learning disability tend to have smaller social networks and their relationships are not as strong as those of children and adults without a learning disability. In many cases their network is limited to close family and carers.


  1. Being online and using social media can enable the development of positive friendships and relationships. In a study conducted by Mencap[2], we found that people with a learning disability and supporters also said that the internet was useful in terms of aiding wellbeing as well as making things more accessible.


  1. However, we know that many have negative experiences online, we also have concerns that the greater use of social media during the COVID-19 pandemic has potentially exposed more people with a learning disability to abuse, scamming and grooming.


  1. The COVID-19 pandemic has seen social media take on a growing importance in the social lives of an increasing number of people with a learning disability. Lockdowns, shielding and self-isolation have forced many people the begin utilizing social media or increase the use of it to remain in contact with friends and family. This increase in use of social media must be matched by an increase in the work to ensure that people with a learning disability can use these platforms safely and be empowered to do this.


  1. While being online has provided positive experiences for some, increasingly we are finding that people with a learning disability say they often feel uncomfortable online due to actual or potential abusive comments. A number of respondents to our past surveys said they felt that they have been bullied or have received hateful messages. According to recent ONS statistics, the prevalence for online bullying was significantly higher for children with a long-term illness or disability (26%) than those without (18%)[3].


  1. People with learning disabilities have told us that social media companies need to do more to tackle bullying and abuse on their platforms. Some respondents to our survey suggested companies should make it much clearer that abuse towards disabled people will not be tolerated outright. Others suggested that websites could work towards a quality mark or ‘safe space’ logo to demonstrate their ethos towards safeguarding vulnerable people.


  1. We support the findings of the Petitions Committee’s 2019 inquiry into ‘Online Abuse and the experience of disabled people’[4] which together with the Law Commission has said that the current law on online abuse is not fit for purpose and requires reform. Crucially, we welcome the Law Society’s view that current criminal law does not treat all protected characteristics equally i.e. someone who is assaulted based on disability is not afforded the same protection as someone who is assaulted because of their race[5].


Is it necessary to have an explicit definition and process for determining harm to children and adults in the Online Safety Bill, and what should it be?


  1. We welcome the inclusion of the phrase legal but harmful content in this legislation but have concerns that the definition of “content that is harmful to adults” is being left to secondary legislation. We would like to see the characteristics of the Equality Act listed or referred to in the legislation in order to create certainty of the protections being offered to this group by the legislation. It would also provide a signal that this legislation will make a real difference in tackling online harms against disabled people rather than being aside or a secondary objective.


  1. While OFCOM will be consulted in the creation of these regulations we would like to see the addition of consultation with outside experts (such as the third sector) and in particular experts by experience to ensure that the regulations correctly identify the groups which should be protected under this legislation.


Does the draft Bill focus enough on the ways tech companies could be encouraged to consider safety and/or the risk of harm in platform design and the systems and processes that they put in place?


  1. People with a learning disability tell us that routes for raising concerns and registering complaints are often not accessible. In response to questions regarding the accessibility in reporting online abuse and bullying, Amy Clarke, Digital Assistant at Mencap, gave evidence to the Petitions Committee as part of the above said inquiry. She said:


“[Social media companies] can make it more obvious how you report abuse. There should put a big button to report abuse and make sure it’s accessible and easy to use. In my experience, it took ages for them to get back to me as well. If you report something, they should get back to you quicker, but also have a number to call to speak to someone. Not everyone is good with using emails so it is good to have someone to speak to.”


  1. We remain concerned at the lack of easy read information in the reporting system and the difficulty in reaching someone to speak with over the phone. Easy read information is a way of communicating, using jargon free, simple to understand text and accompanying images.


  1. We are pleased that social media companies are engaging with us on this issue but the Bill should have additional elements to ensure that the process of dealing with harmful content is accessible as well as the terms of service. The current wording in 2(2) is vague as while terms of service must be “clear and accessible” there is no indication to what would constitute accessible and clear information. OFCOM will play an important role in ensure this is the case.


  1. Additionally, we believe the Bill, or subsequent guidance, should stipulate that the terms of service should include a full explanation of the processes through which content that is flagged as potentially harmful is dealt with. We welcome the inclusion of the requirement for terms of service to be applied consistently but believe that explicitly outlining these processes will provide much needed reassurance to users that they are being treated fairly.


  1. The provision to extend OFCOM’s responsibility for media literacy to cover online harms is welcome (Clause 103). But we would like to see legislation stipulate that social media companies should be engaged with this work and help disseminate the educational materials through their networks.


  1. We welcome the power for the Secretary of State to create and publish a ‘statement of strategic priorities’ and that this will be done with ‘appropriate’ people as well as OFCOM (Clauses 109 and 110). We hope that this statement will include a priority to tackle online harms against people with a learning disability.


  1. The creation of advisory committees under Clause 111 is welcome and we hope that these committees will include representatives of groups who are more likely to face online harms, such as people with a learning disability.


What are the key omissions to the draft Bill, such as a general safety duty or powers to deal with urgent security threats, and (how) could they be practically included without compromising rights such as freedom of expression?


  1. As highlighted by Amy, we remain concerned at the lack of easy read information in the reporting system and the difficulty in reaching someone to speak with over the phone. Easy read information is a way of communicating, using jargon free, simple to understand text and accompanying images. While we continue to have discussions with social media companies on this issue we would like to see the Bill provide a requirement for the provision of accessible formats for information such as reporting mechanisms and terms and conditions.


  1. We welcome the provision for OFCOM to produce research about users’ experiences of regulated services but would like to see an addition of a requirement to understand the experience of groups most likely to experience online harms.


Are there any contested inclusions, tensions or contradictions in the draft Bill that need to be more carefully considered before the final Bill is put to Parliament?


Clause 61 – Risk Assessments


  1. We welcome the inclusion of ‘risk assessments’ for all existing and new user-to-user services. But we would welcome a regular review, perhaps every 5 years, in order to ensure that risk assessments are up to date, especially given the pace of developments in this field. Regular reporting will also provide an additional level of scrutiny for OFCOM on the practices of all user-to-user services which fall under Category 1 rules.


  1. The term “ordinary sensibilities” is used in section 46 to help define ‘content that is harmful to adults’. While we understand that this inclusion is to help ensure freedom of speech, we have concerns that this create ambiguity when discussing the impact of certain words for phrases which are used commonly but are considered derogatory by people with a learning disability. For example, the ‘r’ word can be considered highly offensive by people with a learning disability but others may not agree with this.


  1. Currently there are issues where some pejorative words are included in algorithms that deal with reported content but others are not which leads to highly offensive words remaining in existing content and users free to continue using these terms. We would like to see greater protection provided to people with characteristics and have this defined as characteristics as per the Equality Act 2010.

[1] https://www.mencap.org.uk/learning-disability-explained/research-and-statistics/friendships-research-and-statistics

[2] https://www.mencap.org.uk/sites/default/files/2016-07/Bullying%20wrecks%20lives.pdf


[4] https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201719/cmselect/cmpetitions/759/75902.htm

[5] https://www.lawcom.gov.uk/project/hate-crime/#hate-crime-consultation-paper