JUSTICE – INTERNET ABUSE & ANONYMITY – 23 October 2014
Dr Julian Lewis: Before my hon. Friend [Charlie Elphicke] concludes, I want to say that I think he will have an uphill struggle in managing to persuade people on an international basis that identity should be disclosed when people abuse the internet. He might find it rather easier, however, if firms were required at least to take down and block persistent abusers; and he might find it easier to get search engines to block firms that fail to do that. Perhaps he should include some of these more modest aims in his programme.
[Charlie Elphicke: I agree that enforcement is a massive problem because of the international nature of the internet. The starting place should be to raise the issue and say that anonymity is the problem. It is the nature of the curtain that one could be stabbed from behind that we must look at and, having done so, we must ask how we pull back that curtain. First, we must get big social media organisations such as Facebook and Twitter voluntarily to make sure that they identify their users and take the actions suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis). Secondly, we must have international action to make sure that international laws and regulations are co-ordinated so that we can work in lockstep. I realise that this is a new area that will develop over the next five years. I suspect that the issue will increase in importance rather than decline.]
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[The Minister for Policing, Criminal Justice and Victims (Mike Penning): ... Let me touch briefly on three points, and in particular the anonymous nature of trolls. It is an obvious thing to say that someone should have their anonymity removed – or should they not have it in the first place? In the international spectrum, however, I do not want people living in Syria to have their anonymity taken away. I want people around the world who are living under repression to have the ability to tell the rest of the world what is going on in their countries – what is happening to them, to their families, to their political parties – without fear that their identity will be known. In saying that, the police do have a way of finding out very quickly where such a communication came from. I know that myself as, sadly, my bank account was hacked fairly recently, but the IP addresses were made available enormously quickly by my internet bank to the police and subsequently arrests have been made. They cannot hide, therefore: “If you abuse someone using the internet, no matter what technology you use, invariably you will be discovered, and if you break the law, you will be prosecuted.” What we must do, however, is ensure people have the confidence to come forward, not necessarily directly to the police every time because it can be very difficult for young people to do that, but to someone they trust within their school or family or community, to tell them what is going on so we can prosecute.]
Dr Lewis: Is not the problem that this would be regarded by the police as a pretty low priority unless it had reached a level of great seriousness, and therefore is not the solution, as I suggested before, that the main companies must have easy ways of reporting abuse before it gets to that level and that they should be likely to block it irrespective of whether or not the person’s identity is known?
[Mike Penning: I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention, and he has touched on a point I was coming to in the next few minutes. On his first point, this sort of offence can now be heard in the High Court and it does carry a penalty of up to two years. That is relatively new, but that actually happens. Standing here not as a Justice Minister but as the Police Minister from the Home Office, I can say that the police should, and will, deal with this in the same way as they would deal with an offence offline. That is vitally important, and perhaps a message from the Dispatch Box from the Police Minister to the police on that point this evening will not go amiss.]