Sir David Amess, MP for Southend West, put in to speak in the debate on online anonymity and anonymous abuse on 24 March. Even though Sir David was on the call list to speak, there was not enough time to reach him. Here is the speech that Sir David was going to give:
Having been a Member of Parliament for almost 38 years, I have been in this position before social media was created and when we were using typewriters to respond to constituents. That doesn’t mean, however, that I and my colleagues were immune to abuse. Individuals who are prominent in the news, such as Members of Parliament, have always been suspectable to abuse. The difference is that when I was first elected it wasn’t anonymous as you couldn’t hide behind your computer screen.
Online abuse, which I am sure the majority of my colleagues face on Twitter, is increasing with the number of internet users and the ease at which you can stay anonymous online. For example, in a sample of 4.2 million tweets sent during the 2019 General Election campaign, there was about a 36% increase of abusive replies sent to candidates compared to the 2017 General Election.
Individuals have no problem typing a hurtful or disrespectful message on a keyboard, but I doubt the majority of them would say what they type if they came face to face with their victims. Online anonymity is giving these trolls and bullies a platform that they wouldn’t usually have.
It is not simply enough to encourage people to be kind and respectful because if an anonymous troll does eventually get banned, they can easily create a new anonymous account with a different name and continue their abuse. Therefore, new legislation from the Government is needed to tackle this online abuse. We wouldn’t let an individual hurl aggressive comments at someone in a coffee shop for example, would we? So why do we let them do it online?
This is more relevant than ever recently as the pandemic has forced many of us to stay inside and rely on the internet for entertainment. In April 2020, internet users in the United Kingdom spent a record figure of an average of over 4 hours online each day. We need to address the situation whereby people can post online abuse without having to have their names and addresses published.
The Government’s response last December to the Online Harms White Paper details The Online Safety Bill which will be introduced this year. This Bill is a step in the right direction in ensuring the safety of online users, but I do hope the Bill complies with the Equality Act and ensures that users of social media are protected from any abuse.
The Government and law enforcement are continuing to review whether the current powers are sufficient to tackle illegal anonymous abuse online. All online abuse should be eradicated, and the reduction of online anonymity would be a massive step in doing just that. I hope the Law Commission and the Government implement new laws which more effectively criminalise online behaviours likely to cause harm.