It has been hailed by the government as an unprecedented crackdown on social media abuse and hate crimes online.
And according to the Prime Minister, the new online security bill could also prove to be a vital weapon in the battle to tackle the criminal gangs that smuggle people across the Channel. Political editor Paul Francis reports.
Under tougher laws designed to tackle cyberbullying, social media companies have been warned that they will need to do much more to tackle the spread of harassment online.
The internet has become a dark place for many users, who experience almost continuous hatred and abuse, apparently with little to protect them.
So a committee of MPs, chaired by Folkestone and Hythe MP Damian Collins, this week urged the government to toughen its plans even further.
It says the named CEOs of tech giants should also be held personally accountable in court for failing to deal with inappropriate material posted online.
But can the virtual Wild West be brought to heel and could the removal of anonymity have a deterrent effect on whistleblowers?
What is the government’s online security bill?
The proposals are the government’s response to widespread concerns about hate crimes and online harassment, which have increased dramatically in recent years.
According to ministers, the new law will see much stronger action both against people who post material considered to be harassment or bullying as well as against social media platforms that do not remove or block those who post unacceptable comments or material on their sites.
It will also cover websites, apps, and other services that host user-generated content or allow people to talk to others online.
A key requirement of the new law will require social media companies to be responsible for removing and limiting the dissemination of illegal and harmful content such as child sexual abuse, terrorist content and suicidal content.
Why is the government intervening now?
The clamor for a much more forceful approach to the issue of anti-hate online has increased.
Its victims range from local and national politicians, celebrities and athletes to young children.
Public confidence in online safety has plummeted, especially when it comes to the risks to children.
Despite the fact that we are now using the internet more than ever, more than three quarters of UK adults fear going online.
Fewer parents believe the benefits outweigh the risks of their kids being online – 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, pornographic revenge, hate speech, child abuse images and related publications. suicide and eating disorders.
Research shows that 12 to 17 year olds are the most active online, with girls sending about 3,952 messages per month, significantly more than boys, who send an average of 2,815 messages per month.
Much of this is harmless online activity, but a growing number are exceeding the limit of what is considered appropriate for activity that amounts to harassment or bullying and racial hatred.
Tragic cases like teenage Molly Russell, who committed suicide after viewing material on Instagram, have only underscored the need for action.
Will anonymous posting be banned?
This is one of the major problems, but the bill as it stands does not explicitly prohibit people from posting without revealing their identity or poses “new limits on online anonymity”.
However, under the new duty of care, all businesses would be expected to tackle illegal anonymous abuse through âefficient systems and processesâ.
That said, the new Minister of Culture, Media and Sports, Nadine Dorries, revealed that there is still work to be done to ensure that tech companies take action.
She says the government has decided to “re-examine how our legislation can go even further to ensure that the largest social media companies properly protect users against anonymous abuse.”
What powers currently exist to deal with the issue?
Trolling online is a criminal offense that can be prosecuted under the Malicious Communications Act 1983 and the Communications Act 2003.
The law applies to anyone who posts other material that is indecent or grossly offensive, or threatening, or false and known or believed to be false by the sender.
The mental element of the offense is the intention to cause distress or anxiety to the recipient.
However, when a prosecution is contemplated, the prosecution must be satisfied that it is in the public interest.
How will the new law affect freedom of expression and public debate?
The government says the new law will usher in “a new era of accountability and protection for democratic debate.”
There are measures meant to strengthen the rights of people to express themselves freely online, while protecting journalism and democratic political debate.
This will cover content defined as âdemocratically importantâ.
This will include content promoting or opposing government or political party policy ahead of a vote in Parliament, election or referendum, or campaigning on a political issue live.
“This is a one-off piece of legislation in a generation that will update our laws for the digital age.”
What do our politicians think about the plans?
They are largely favorable:
Folkestone and Hythe MP Damian Collins MP is the Chairman of the Joint Committee on the Bill.
He said: âThe online security bill is finally about putting a legal framework in place around hate speech and harmful content, and ultimately holding the tech giants to account. role that their technology plays in promoting it.
âThis is a one-time-in-a-generation bill that will update our laws for the digital age. “
âUnfortunately, we have to use these platforms to do our job as MPs, but the abuses have been disproportionate.â
South Thanet MP Craig Mackinlay said: ‘I’m sure when this period in human history is written, social media will probably be seen as the worst invention of the time with a waste of time, the bullying, hatred and meanness tops the negative attributes.
âThe bill will try to solve some of these problems, but will never be foolproof.
“If you want to disagree with me or colleagues, please do not hesitate, but the opposition is best explained without swearing or threats.
âWe can all do our part to become a more friendly and cohesive community. “
And Canterbury Labor MP Rosie Duffield said: âUnfortunately we have to use these platforms to do our job as MPs, but the abuses have been off the scale.
âSome of the things I read about myself were libelous.
âI wondered if I should encourage women to enter politics. Some things are pure fiction; most of the time, I choose not to answer.
“The reason I haven’t considered legal action is that it would take so much energy, it would distract me from the work I have to do. Anonymity must be fought.”