Maria Miller: Death and rape threats, abuse, revenge porn. It’s time for Government to get tough with the social media giants.

28 Feb

Maria Miller is a former Culture Secretary, and is MP for Basingstoke.

I want 2021 to be the year that we finally grasp the nettle of online abuse – to create a safer, more respectful online environment, that will lead to a kinder politics too.

The need has never been greater. Abuse, bullying, and harassment on social media platforms is ruining lives, undermining our democracy, and splintering society.

As an MP, I have had to become accustomed to a regular bombardment of online verbal abuse, rape, and even death threats. In this I am far from alone. Female colleagues across the House are routinely targeted online with abusive, sexist, threatening comments. As Amnesty has shown, black female MPs are most likely to be subjected to unacceptable and even unlawful abuse.

And while women and people from an ethnic minority background are more likely than most to receive abuse online, they are not alone. Hate-filled trolls and disruptive spammers consider anyone with a social media presence to be fair game: one in four people have experienced some kind of abuse online and online bullying and harassment has been linked to increased rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide.

While the personal impact of online abuse is intolerable, we must not underestimate the societal effect it is having. Research by the think-tank Compassion in Politics found that 27 per cent of people are put off posting on social media because of retributive abuse. We cannot have an open, honest, and pluralist political debate online in an atmosphere in which people are scared to speak up.

Which is why I am working cross-party with MPs and Peers to ensure that the upcoming Online Harms Bill is as effective as possible in tackling the scourge of online abuse.

First, the Bill must deal with the problem of anonymous social media accounts. Anonymous accounts generate the majority of the abuse and misinformation spread online and while people should have an option to act incognito on social media, the harm these accounts cause must be addressed.

I support a twin-track system: giving social media users the opportunity to create a “verified” account by supplying a piece of personal identification and the ability to filter out “unverified” accounts. This would give choice to verified users while continuing to offer protection to those, for example whistle blowers, who want to access social media anonymously.

The public back this idea. Polling by Opinium for Compassion in Politics reveals that 81 per cent of social media users would be willing to provide a piece of personal identification (passport, driving license or bank statement most probably) to gain a verified account. Three in four (72 per cent) believe that social media companies need to have a more interventionist role to wipe out the abuse on their platforms.

Of course, this approach would need to be coupled with enforcement ,and I believe that can be achieved by introducing a duty of care on social media companies, along the lines suggested in the Government’s White Paper.

For too long, they have escaped liability for the harm they cause by citing legal loopholes, arguing they are platforms for content not producers or publishers. The legal environment that has facilitated social media companies’ growth is not fit for purpose – it must change to better reflect their previously unimaginable reach and influence. Any company that sells a good to a customer already has to abide by health and safety standards, and there is no reason to exempt social media companies. Any failure by those companies to undertake effective measures to limit the impact of toxic accounts should result in legal sanctions.

Alongside a duty of care, we need more effective laws to give individuals protection, particularly when it comes to posting of images online without consent. Deepfake, revenge pornography and up-skirting are hideous inventions of the online world. I want new laws to make it a crime to post or threaten to post an intimate image without consent, and for victims to be offered the same anonymity as others subjected to a sexual offence, so we stop needing the law to play continuous ‘catch up’ as new forms of online abuse emerge.

Finally, the Government should make good on its promise to invest an independent organisation with the power and resources to regulate social media companies in the UK. All the signs suggest that Ofcom will be asked to undertake that role and I can see no problem with that proposal as long asthe company is given truly wide-ranging and independent powers, and personnel with the knowledge to tackle the social media giants.

In making these recommendations to Government, my intention is not to punish social media companies or to stifle online debate. Far from it. I want a more respectful, representative, and reasonable discourse online. So, let’s work together over the coming 12 months to make this Bill genuinely world-leading in the protection it will create for social media users, in the inclusivity it will foster, and respect it will engender.

Caroline Ffiske: How non-crime hate incidents came into force. And why they should be reformed – or scrapped altogether.

18 Feb

Caroline Ffiske is a former adviser to the New Zealand Government and Conservative councillor in Hammersmith & Fulham.

Sir William Macpherson, who led the damning report into the Metropolitan Police following the murder of Stephen Lawrence, has died, aged 94. Tributes have poured in for his groundbreaking work in naming and tackling institutional racism.

However, his legacy is mixed. For it was the Macpherson report which introduced into policing, the concept of the ‘non-crime hate incident’ which has become so controversial today.

Introduced with the best of intentions, it has grown and morphed beyond reason – more so than Macpherson could surely have imagined. How can we now freely debate important and controversial political issues, when to do so might land us with a police record accusing us of hate?

The question is of growing importance. Conservative MPs are taking an increasing interest in free speech – and Priti Patel is reported to be considering an overhaul of hate crime law.

Action would be complicated. There isn’t a single piece of hate crime law that, with a tweak or two, would restore us to a Miltonian lost paradise of free speech. But the non-crime hate incident is part of the mix ,and needs reform. Before exploring options, it’s useful and timely to revisit its origin and evolution; and also to carefully consider whether and how it harms.

The origin of the non-crime hate incident

The widely publicised Harry Miller case in 2019 helped to bring the non-crime hate incident to public attention – and gave the police a jolt.

Miller received a call from the police and was told to ‘check his thinking’ – and so learned that participating in online debate about the meaning of sex and gender had earned him a police record accusing him of hate.

When he took the matter to court, the judge agreed that the behaviour of Humberside Police, in their visit to and warning of Miller, had breached the boundaries of the reasonable. Their actions were criticised as being akin to those of the Cheka, the Stasi, and the Gestapo.

However, the judge also concluded that it was perfectly correct for the police to maintain a record of Miller’s tweets. In doing so, they were following the College of Policing Hate Crime Guidance which originated in the Macpherson Report.

This introduced key components of the non-crime hate incident; the most significant being the validity of individual perception. A ‘racist incident’ should be defined as ‘any incident which is perceived to be racist by the victim or any other person’. That was in 1999.

Concept creep

The College of Policing’s current Hate Crime Guidance can be found here; and the definition of non-crime hate incidents here.

As inspired by Macpherson, this says that all reported incidents must be recorded. There is a reminder of their supposed seriousness; they “should not be dismissed as unimportant; they can cause extreme distress to victims and communities”. After all, they might be “the precursor to more serious or escalating criminal offending”. This reminds us of Macpherson’s original serious intent.

But, twenty years on, nothing seems too trivial to count as a hate incident. It’s anything that anyone perceives to have been “motivated wholly or partially by hostility…the victim does not have to justify or provide evidence of their belief”. Indeed, police officers “should not directly challenge this perception…police officers may also identify a non-crime hate incident, even where the victim or others do not”. Indeed, “victims … may not be aware that they are a victim of a non-crime hate incident, even though this is clear to others”. Hostility? This from the Met: ‘evidence of the hate element is not a requirement.’

Macpherson intended the concept to tackle racism. But more ‘monitored strands’ have since been added: disability, religion, sexual orientation, and, most recently, transgender, in 2015. However, these don’t limit the concept: “non-crime hate incidents are also committed against victims who are targeted because of a non-monitored personal characteristic”.

The non-crime hate incident has become a concept without meaningful boundary – no wonder the police record people’s tweets.

The police keep notes; how is that a problem?

Firstly, the scale of the issue is not insignificant. In January last year, it was reported that police forces in England and Wales had recorded 120,000 non-crime hate incidents over the last five years.

People aren’t told when they’ve been accused of a hate incident now on police record. And there is an issue over how police handle these records.

In the Crime Report relating to Miller’s tweets, Humberside Police stated that “the suspect” was “posting transphobic comments on Twitter” and “showing hatred for the transgender community”.

This was a slur. Sarah Phillimore, a barrister who co-founded WeAreFairCop with Miller, discovered that her local police force has records describing her as ‘a barrister who has been posting hate about Jewish and transgender people‘.

Regarding her comments about Jewish people, they noted that there is nothing ‘overtly offensive’ about them, but nevertheless claimed that she had been ‘posting hate’.

Again, this was a slur. But when Phillimore asked the Wiltshire police to delete the record, they wouldn’t – and here seems to be no mechanism for review. College of Policing Guidance also indicates that records could be shared with future employers via DBS checks.

You may feel sympathy for the police as they battle the intersections of ‘culture wars’, ‘vexatious reporting’, and guidance which requires them to record trivial matters. They must, at least, minimally comply.

But here is a video from the Wiltshire Police touting for trade ‘if you experience any kind of hate crime or incident then please call us on 101 or report it online’.

More generally, the non-crime hate incident now feeds into a police culture too focused on accusing us of offence. It’s one of the building blocks, which, taken together, resulted in the police investigating Darren Grimes for a media interview with David Starkey, and arresting Kate Scottow at her home and holding her in custody for eleven hours, because of some offensive tweets.

In February 2019, Boris Johnson said of Scottow’s case: ‘Whatever the rights and wrongs of this internet feud, we are wasting too much time and resource on cases like this’.   Macpherson intended the concept to help drive community cohesion; I would argue that the non-crime hate incident has grown into a tool that can be used vexatiously to drive us apart.

Options for reform

The obvious route is a Law Commission Review. But the Commission is already mid-way through such a process – and it’s not boding well for free speech.

It’s more of the same: the Commission proposes to expand the reach of hate crime law, not limit it. It has proposed a new category of communication offence.  Here is a telling extract: “The offence does not require proof that anyone was actually harmed”.

No, the Government must take charge. Racism and discrimination must be taken seriously; so too, must free speech and open debate – and the pursuit of violent crime. None of these benefit from police focus on the inconsequential.

Here are some suggestions for reform:

  • The emotive concept of ‘hate’ is not helpful – would ‘discrimination’ be better?
  • Some degree of significance is needed.
  • If someone is accused of a non-crime hate incident, they should be informed.
  • There should be a mechanism for challenge.
  • Records should use non-emotive language; they should not slur people.
  • The police should not tout for trade.
  • Non-crime hate incidents should not be disclosed in DBS searches.

Alternatively, the government could grasp the bull by the horns; in the spirit of Macpherson, be bold. Twenty years on, the Conservatives could go full circle – and simply do away with the concept of Hate Crime altogether.

Radical: Cherry and the SNP. Gender ideology is being used as a proxy for control of the party.

17 Feb

Victoria Hewson is a solicitor and Rebecca Lowe is the former director of FREER, and a former assistant editor of ConservativeHome. Together they found Radical, a campaign for truth and freedom in the gender recognition debate.

From the sacking of Joanna Cherry from their Westminster front bench, to the astonishing legal and political battles surrounding Alex Salmond, SNP infighting has been making headlines all round. From a Radical point of view, this has caught our attention, because gender ideology is serving both as a cause of splits in the party, and a battleground on which a proxy war for its control is arguably being fought.

You’ve probably noticed that the Scottish government has been pushing ahead with reforms to the Scottish Gender Recognition Act — reforms that would enable people to change their legal sex on the basis of a personal declaration, with no need for any diagnosis of gender dysphoria or other external validation. Yes, this would entail a seismic policy shift to what’s generally referred to as “self-ID”, and which the UK government recently decided not to pursue.

This topic been causing disagreements within the SNP for some years, with senior women including Cherry and finance minister Kate Forbes having expressed their opposition to the introduction of self-ID. Then, at the start of February, Cherry was sacked from her position as SNP spokesperson for Justice and Home Affairs. This followed a high profile and acrimonious row with fellow SNP MP Kirsty Blackman, and the SNP LGBT group “Out for Independence”, which involved allegations of transphobia and antisemitism.

The row was triggered by Cherry’s support for Sarah Phillimore, a barrister who was suspended from Twitter for expressing gender critical views. Phillimore has commenced legal proceedings against Blackman for defamation, and, in an extraordinary twist, another SNP front bencher was sacked after donating to Phillimore’s crowd funder for legal expenses.

It’s crucial to note that this ongoing debate over sex and gender is closely linked to the hate crime laws also being pushed by the Scottish government. The Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill currently progressing through the Scottish Parliament would create a new offence of “stirring up hatred”, the scope of which would include relevant incidents related to the protected characteristic of “transgender identity”.

This had led to concerns that it might be the case that, with the passing of the bill, expressing opposition to gender recognition laws, or simply expressing the view that human beings cannot change biological sex, would become criminalised, or that freedom of expression related to these matters would at least become seriously curtailed, owing to people’s fear of falling foul of the new offence.

An amendment to the bill, intended to protect free speech in the “discussion or criticism” of transgender identity, appears to have provoked an “exodus” of young SNP activists from the party. And this, in turn, led to Sturgeon making a speech, in which she firmly took the side of the trans activists, and declared an aim of zero tolerance for transphobia within the party.

This response to the free speech amendment seems to validate the concerns of critics of the bill. After all, as we have argued here many times, the introduction of self-ID is not unequivocally in the interests of trans people: just look at the healthcare risks trans people will face if census-data collectors continue down the self-ID route.

It is absolutely essential for the purposes of proper healthcare resource allocation that there are reliable national statistics, for instance, on the number of people who need access to regular cervical smear tests, or information about testicular cancer screening. It is in nobody’s interests for the simple recognition of biological facts to become illegal — and to equate such recognition with hatred is to diminish the serious genuine struggles trans people often face.

Now, since Cherry is firmly on the “gender-critical” side of the debate — the side, that is, that believes in biological sex, and the societal importance of recognising truths about it — her sacking could easily be seen as a related power play by Sturgeon.

Polling suggests that the removal of Cherry from the front bench has the support of a majority of SNP members. Moreover, Cherry is also associated with Salmond. And the Scottish Parliament’s ongoing inquiry into Sturgeon’s behaviour in connection with the complaints against Salmond — and the eventual criminal proceedings that arose from these complaints — could conceivably result in a finding that Sturgeon violated the ministerial code, and would therefore be expected to resign.

Shoring up her position with party members on a cause that is a priority for many of them will surely help, if Sturgeon is forced to fight to retain the position of first minister and party leader. And SNP members and voters generally support gender-recognitions reforms, even if these are not widely supported by Scottish voters as a whole (indeed, polls suggest that reform of the Gender Recognition Act is of low salience, and only supported by 37 per cent of voters in Scotland).

Now, playing to the party base in times of trouble is, of course, nothing new in politics. Indeed, for supporters of other parties, it’s tempting to enjoy the schadenfreude of SNP MPs, MSPs, and activists turning their customary sanctimony and high-handedness on to each other.

But don’t forget that this power struggle isn’t simply limited to arguments about sex and gender. It carries with it serious threats to free speech and democratic accountability, and reflects deep structural problems with the devolution settlement in Scotland.

Sturgeon may be happy to instrumentalise the interests of trans people and women alike — for it is women who will suffer most at the introduction of self-ID — to try to hold on to her power over what increasingly often seems like a one-party state. But this isn’t just wrong in itself: it likely won’t end happily for anyone.

James Somerville-Meikle: The SNP’s overhaul of hate crime legislation is a threat to freedom of expression in Scotland

7 Aug

James Somerville-Meikle is Head of Public Affairs at the Catholic Union of Great Britain.

What do Catholic Bishops and the National Secular Society have in common?

Despite their different world views, they have found common ground in opposing the SNP’s overhaul of hate crime legislation – which both groups fear will damage freedom of expression in Scotland.

The Scottish Government’s Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill was introduced earlier this year with the aim of helping to “build community cohesion”. It has proved more effective than Scottish Ministers could ever have imagined. Most of civil society in Scotland is now united in opposition to the Bill.

A recent consultation by Holyrood’s Justice Committee revealed the full extent of this opposition – which goes well beyond the usual nationalist critics. The Society of Scottish Newspapers, the Law Society of Scotland, and the Scottish Police Federation, have all publicly called for a rethink from the Scottish Government.

A new campaign group – Free to Disagree – has started to oppose the Bill, led by former SNP Deputy Leader Jim Sillars, the National Secular Society, and the Christian Institute. To have brought together such a diverse range of opponents is a pretty impressive achievement by the SNP’s Justice Secretary, Humza Yousaf.

But it’s the criticism from the Scottish Catholic Bishops which is perhaps the most striking.

In their submission to the Justice Committee, the Bishops warn that “a new offence of possessing inflammatory material could even render material such as the Bible and the Catechism of the Catholic Church… inflammatory.”

Let’s be clear what this means – the Catholic Church, which counts around 700,000 followers in Scotland, is worried that legislation currently being considered by the Scottish Parliament could make expressing their beliefs a criminal offence.

The Bishops acknowledge their concerns are based on a “low threshold” interpretation of the proposed new offence. But the fact that such concerns exist at all is extraordinary.

Catholic Bishops in Scotland choose their battles carefully – conscious of a public sphere that does not take kindly to lectures from Bishops. The strength of their public comments shows just how much concern there is about the Bill. It’s also perhaps a sign they think this is one area where they might be able to force a change of approach from the Scottish Government.

The Bill would also introduce a new offence of “stirring up hatred” against certain groups, even if a person making the remarks had not intended any offence.

Currently in Scotland, the offence of “stirring up hatred” only applies in respect of race, but this would be expanded under the Bill to include “age, disability, religion, sexual orientation, transgender identity, and variation in sex characteristics.”

This huge expansion of the law is not combined with any definition of what “stirring up hatred” means. The Bill’s Explanatory Notes say that an offence could be committed through “behaviour of any kind”, which “may consist of a single act or a course of conduct.” In other words, pretty much anything could constitute an offence.

Crucially, criminal behaviour under the new law would be based on offence caused, rather than intended – a significant difference to England and Wales where intent is required for a person to be criminalised for behaviour which someone finds insulting. As a result, it risks creating a situation in which offending becomes an offence.

It’s little wonder that police officers, lawyers, and journalists are deeply worried about the proposals. The Bill paints broad brush strokes and leaves others to work out the picture. The task of interpreting a law where offences are not wholly within your control but based on how others perceive your words and actions, is fraught with perils.

Catholic Bishops fear this could lead to a “deluge of vexatious claims”. The Scottish Police Federation warns it could mean officers “determining free speech”, leading to a breakdown in relations with the public. And the Law Society of Scotland raised concerns that “certain behaviour, views expressed or even an actor’s performance, which might well be deemed insulting or offensive, could result in a criminal conviction under the terms of the bill as currently drafted.” Not exactly the cohesive society envisaged by the Scottish Government.

At the heart of this debate is a fundamental question about what a cohesive and tolerant society looks like. Does tolerance require conformity and removing any possible source of offence? Or does it mean accepting and respecting difference of opinion within certain red lines?

To use No 10’s language – it’s a question of whether we level up or level down when it comes to freedom of expression. In the case of the SNP’s proposals, it looks like a race to the bottom.

This is not an enviable position. As Stephen Evans from the National Secular Society points out:

“Freedom to say only what others find acceptable is no freedom at all.”

There is still time for the Scottish Government to reconsider its approach. Most of the groups opposed to the Bill, including the Catholic Bishops, agree that stirring up hatred is wrong, and would welcome an update to hate crime legislation. But the current approach is not working and Scottish Ministers must realise that.

Creating a catch-all offence, and passing the buck to the police and courts, is not the way forward. It’s sloppy law-making, and risks threatening the vibrancy and diversity of life in Scotland.

The publication of the Bill has shown that people with completely different views are capable of respecting one another, and even working together for a common cause.

What unites religious and secular voices is a belief in freedom of expression. This must be upheld, or we will all suffer as a result.