Gavin Newlands – 2020 Speech on Online Harms

The speech made by Gavin Newlands, the SNP MP for Paisley and Renfrewshire North, in the House of Commons on 19 November 2020.

We have had another excellent, if curtailed, debate today. I thank the right hon. and learned Member for Kenilworth and Southam (Jeremy Wright), the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Dame Diana Johnson) and the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) for securing it and the Backbench Business Committee for facilitating it. I do not have time to discuss and praise the various speeches that we have had, but I particularly praise the right hon. and learned Member for Kenilworth and Southam, who opened the debate. I thought his speech was fantastic and immensely powerful; nobody could ignore what he said. Take note, Minister: if an SNP Member and a Tory Member can agree so wholeheartedly, actions surely must follow.

We spend more and more of our time online, whether we are interacting with others or are passive consumers of content—the growth of Netflix is testament to the latter. As we spend more time online, the harms that were historically the preserve of the physical world are shifting to the online world. We have seen the growth in online financial scams and their increasing sophistication.

I have a number of constituents, as I am sure do other hon. Members, who have been scammed out of tens of thousands of pounds and lost everything, in part because the scammers were able to manipulate Google keywords advertising to drive traffic to their site and begin the scamming process. The pandemic and lockdown have seen an increase in those scams, as the perpetrators know people are spending more time online than normal.

Since the start of the pandemic, the level of disinformation around vaccination and healthcare has grown exponentially. Anti-vaxxers have already targeted the newly developed vaccines that we all hope will get us out of this situation. Such disinformation campaigns have always been dangerous, particularly for young people who are usually the main recipients of vaccines, but now present an even bigger danger to public health.

These lies—that is what they are—are propagated via the platforms of social media companies, which should have a responsibility to tackle such anti-science, anti-reason and anti-fact campaigns quickly and directly. It is not good enough for Mark Zuckerberg and the like to parrot free speech as if it were a “get out of jail free” card. Free speech comes with responsibilities; it does not give people the right to place others at risk of illness and death.

Just as children were most at risk from the anti-vaxxers until the pandemic hit, it is children who are most at risk from online harassment and abuse, in particular young women and girls. A recent report by Plan International on girls’ rights in the digital world makes extremely depressing reading. More than a fifth of girls have received abuse on a photo or status they have posted, and nearly a quarter have felt harassed by someone contacting them regularly on social media. The net result of the abuse, harassment and pressure is that nearly half of all girls are afraid to give their opinions on social media, for fear of the response, and 13% have stopped going on social media completely to avoid negative responses. Less than a week before the international day for the elimination of violence against women and girls, those figures are shocking.

A toxic environment is stopping women and girls participating in the online world on the same basis as boys and men. It feeds into a dangerous and violent misogyny that is on the rise on social media, again largely unchecked by the big tech companies until it becomes a big PR issue. It is no surprise that so many executive positions in those companies are occupied by men and so few by women.

For most households, online communication is now a fundamental part of daily life, whether it is streaming content or keeping in touch with family and friends on social media, but too often the regulation of online activities that cause harm seems to be stuck in the last century, when the internet was something we read about in newspapers or heard about on one of our four TV channels. The world has moved on dramatically in the past two decades, but the legislative framework has not. It is especially important that the victims of online harms, whether it be abuse, harassment or financial scams, feel able to report their experiences to the police or other relevant authorities. If big tech will not act, it falls to the Government to protect our citizens.

I understand that the pressures on the Government at the moment are absolutely huge, but so are the risks for individuals and for society the longer these harms are allowed to proliferate. I urge the Government to heed the contributions of Members right across the House and bring forward concrete plans to introduce the Bill as soon as possible.