THE level and sheer scale of online abuse is overwhelming both the police and justice service.
The internet has created opportunities and connections that were unimaginable just a few decades ago.
But for some, it has given a license to racially abuse, bully, harass, intimidate and threaten. The consequences have been that women, children and sometimes even clearly vulnerable adults have been picked on and exploited, often reduced to living in fear and worry and certainly, afraid to go online for fear of what they might find.
Tragically, in a number of cases, online abuse has led to the deaths of young people and adults.
As a parent, I am increasingly concerned by the levels of misogynist, sexist, racist, anti-semitic and homophobic bullying on a broad range of social media platforms.
The people behind this behaviour must be challenged and outed at every turn. And we can all play our part in notifying the authorities if we spot this kind of behaviour and language. MPs in particular, who have often been the victims, have a duty to lead on this. Perhaps we should all use the hashtag #Reportabuse ?
Politics can be a dirty business. We all know that. But at times in our country, politics has sunk into an online gutter.
Both right and left have been guilty at times. I do not differentiate between the two. I don’t care who it is coming from… if it is abusive, racist, anti-semitic, misogynist, homophobic or just downright nasty, I absolutely condemn it. It has no place in our politics.
There are also people who seem to think it is fine to say things online that they would never dream of saying to your face. This also is intolerable. It is double standards, hypocritical and bullying. We are a decent society off-line, we should be decent on-line too. Perhaps we can all use the hashtag #CutItOut ?
Online abuse cannot be the new norm. We are better than that.
Schools and education services from primary upwards must increasingly integrate anti-cyber bullying programmes throughout the curriculum. It is particularly important that this work targets young boys if we are to curtail the language of sexual violence and misogyny which too many seem prone to use.
And we must ask ourselves some key questions as a decent, civilised society. Are MP’s - or any of our citizen’s - fair game for threats of rape, domestic violence, anti-Semitic slogans and cartoons, or homophobic or racist slurs?
No, no, no.
The Secretary of State is right when she says that a “crime offline is a crime online” but it is clear to me and these benches that the current legislative framework is not giving sufficient protection, nor sufficient justice, to the victims of online bullying.
Most cases under section 1 of the Malicious Communications Act – relating to indecent and grossly offensive and threatening messages – are not prosecuted.
Many in the frontline, such as Stephen Kavanagh, who heads Essex police, say:
“No police chief would claim the way we deliver police services has sufficiently adapted to the new threat and harms that the internet brings.
“The levels of abuse that now take place within the internet are on a level we never really expected. If we did try to deal with all of it we would clearly be swamped.”
Harry Fletcher, the criminal justice director at Digital-Trust, said: “Criminals and abusers readily use technology and it is imperative that the criminal justice system catches up. Existing laws are fragmented and inadequate.”
Mr Speaker, We have heard from the debate today that there is a confusing array of more than 30 pieces of legislation currently being used against online crimes. These include the Contempt of Court Act 1981, Protection from Harassment Act 1997, Malicious Communications Act 1988, Communications Act 2003, Offences Against the Person Act 1861, Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 1992, Crime and Disorder Act 1998, Computer Misuse Act 1990, and the Criminal Justice Act 2003.
The new provisions to tackle revenge porn are welcome but as many here have argued today, the landscape is still incredibly fragmented.
Most of all, people don’t know where to go to report online abuse. They are not sure who to turn to for advice and who to report it too.
Perhaps we need an online campaign to help support victims and encourage them to seek help and report it to the appropriate authorities? A campaign which spells out the penalties would also be helpful – and every police force in the country could start that tomorrow. They could use the hashtag #nohidingplace
But our police services are overstretched, under resourced and ill-equipped to deal with this in isolation. Training on cyber-crime must now be rolled out to all police services as a matter of urgency.
As a priority, legislation should be brought forward to ensure that all the relevant legislation is pulled together into one single place – and that penalties are increased.