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Sandra Gidley (Romsey): I am grateful to have the opportunity to speak on this subject today. There has been a certain amount of interest in the fairly enigmatic title of the debate. For example, a journalist rang me up and asked whether I would use the opportunity to talk about a gentleman who had put a contract out on someone using the internet, but I shall disappoint people if they think that that is what I am talking about today. So I thought that it would be helpful to start by explaining that I want to concentrate on the problems caused by using a website to bully, harass or defame an innocent member of the public.
When I originally drafted the title of this debate, I was summoned to the Table Office and told that no Minister appeared to have responsibility for the subject. So I apologise to the Minister for perhaps getting him here under false pretences, but I hope that when he hears what I have to say, he will agree that some action is needed to deal with the problem that I am about to describe.
It would be helpful to outline the events that took place. I was visited at my surgery by the mother of a teenager. For reasons that will become obvious, I should like to keep the names confidential, so I shall call the teenager child A. Her son had been subjected to what can only be described as a particularly nasty form of homophobic bullying using the internet. Child B had set up a website in the name of child A and using child A's name as the domain name. The content of the website caused great concern as it portrayed very graphic pictures of naked men and the invitation, "If you think size matters--then call me."
Unfortunately, child A's phone number was also included on the website. Perhaps luckily, child B was so proud of his endeavours that he could not resist taunting child A at school the next day, as he was keen for his handiwork to be noted. So the outcome of the story was not as serious as it might have been.
Child A had a good relationship with his mother and alerted her to the website. It cannot have been easy for him to do so, because the material was the sort of thing that the average teenager would not want his mother to see or even know existed. The mother acted immediately, and the offending site was, thankfully, withdrawn quickly.
However, the outcome could have been very different. If child A had not felt able to show the material to his mother, nothing would have been done, the child would have been under considerable stress, and the house might have been telephoned. If child B had been even more malicious, he might have alerted other children to the existence of the website, which might in turn have led to taunting at school, and more phone calls. The life of the innocent child could have been made thoroughly miserable. There could well have been a tragic end to the story, and I do not think that I am being over-dramatic when I say that.
The mother of child A came to see me not only to tell me about the offence but to tell me that she was concerned because the police had told her that no crime had technically been committed and that they could not take
There have been other cases of people registering a website in the name of another person for mischievous purposes, although not quite so sinisterly. My hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Mr. Russell) found that a political rival had set up an alternative website containing a host of material that was not approved by him. I hope that it will not be self-interest that moves politicians to act on the matter, but if that gets things moving, that may be for the greater good.
I read recently that an entrepreneur had used the name Billy Connolly to advertise the stud services of his Afghan hound. That sounds like a bit of a laugh, but Billy Connolly did not think so and successfully sued. Unfortunately, not everyone has the money to take legal action. I shall return to that point later.
It appears that the legislation surrounding the internet is a mess. Internet law is largely piecemeal, unknown or unwritten. Few laws deal specifically with the internet, the main exceptions being the Electronic Communications Act 2000 and the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000.
I am not here today to knock the internet. It has wonderful potential as a tool for education and business. It also serves a social function by keeping people in touch cheaply. My daughter even met her current boyfriend via the internet, so it is not all bad. However, the huge potential of this tool must not be jeopardised by the unpleasant use to which some users put it. It is imperative that the internet be allowed to be used to its full, positive potential. As a Liberal Democrat, I believe that freedom is a right, and that it must be guaranteed by any new legislation or guidance on the internet. So legislators must walk the tightrope between freedoms.
The right to free speech and expression must be balanced against the freedom to live free from slander and fear. Many of us believe that the Government have ignored the rights of the individual in recent legislation on the internet. The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act smacked of a patriarchal big brother state and was widely attacked by civil liberties groups when it was introduced.
I want my debate today to be about the freedom of individuals to be free from internet crime, and from harassment or bullying via the internet. I should like to start a continuing debate about how the individual can be protected from a malicious internet user. I have mentioned an example in which a person had no protection. I am also aware of a case in Bournemouth in which a man was jailed for seven and a half years for systematically harassing a young woman. There were similarities with the case that I described earlier; the material placed on the site included invitations to other net users to rape and abuse the victim. The Bournemouth case was slightly different, because hacking was involved and the matter was not dealt with quickly. The victim received abusive e-mails and telephone calls from around the world. The information posted on the website and the subsequent events mean that the victim is still receiving psychiatric treatment.
Home computer use is now increasingly common. I do not have the most up-to-date figures, but in August last year 14 million people in the United Kingdom were logging on to the internet at home. That constitutes 22 per cent. of the population. Legislation has not kept up with this change.
What can we do about it and what should we do about it? It would be helpful if a way could be found to allow people sole use of their own name. After all, we cannot open a bank account in another person's name. We need a means of ensuring that someone cannot set up a website in another person's name unless he has clear evidence that that person has given express permission. That simple action would stop cases that arise from simple malice.
It would be helpful also if the Government could increase their efforts to monitor illegal content on the net. I know that that can be rather like looking for a needle in a haystack. However, there are some bodies that deal with the issue. The Internet Watch Foundation is doing a valuable job. It is rightly concentrating its resources on child pornography. The foundation acts as a third party that receives notices of illegal pornography, establishes the illegality of the material and then delivers notices to the internet service providers that are posting the material to remove it.
The foundation is very good, and a quick-fix solution has been proposed: that it extend its remit to all illegal content. However, that would probably be difficult. I have thought about the matter carefully, and I am not sure that that is the right way to go. Currently, the foundation's staff receive specialist training and guidance from the police to enable them to make decisions on the legal status of material. Child pornography is illegal, full stop.
Claims that material breaches copyright law or is defamatory, slanderous, or incites racial hatred are rarely clear on first inspection. It is never clear whether a court would decide that the information was illegal. For these reasons, I do not think that it would be as simple as it seems to extend the scheme.
The public need an open and well publicised guide that shows how an individual can make complaints about internet sites. That would include investment in resources so that trained staff could examine complaints. It might be useful also to encourage ISPs to include links to a Government website that is dealing with the issue, in almost the same way as the Advertising Standards Agency places advertisements in newspapers and magazines. At the very least, people would then know how easily to complain.
I have been speaking to members of the Internet Service Providers Association, and they, too, are keen to get things right. They would rather the internet be used to its full, positive potential. They want to minimise the dark side of the net. They are calling on the Government to address the issue during the implementation of the e-commerce directive. ISPs believe that they are not liable for content on the internet. They have no obligations to monitor and they are not legally responsible for content.
The ISPs are keen for the current situation to continue, and are calling for the establishment of an improved system for removing illegal material. They need clear guidelines on what is acceptable and what is not. It is a matter that demands much thought and attention.
In a recent civil action--Demon v. Godfrey--the finding was against Demon, an ISP. It failed to remove material from a news group that Dr. Godfrey regarded as defamatory. As Demon did not remove the material, the judge found it in breach of the Defamation Act 1996. Although Demon was shown not to be a publisher, under the 1996 Act it could not claim innocent dissemination, as it had been put on notice of the existence of defamatory material.
A big worry for ISPs is that they do not want to take on the role of judge and jury, which brings us to the thorny issue of takedown. That is a procedure whereby the ISP becomes responsible for removing sites once a complaint has been made against them. That sounds good, and the procedure would have helped my constituent who faced the original problem that I described. However, if ISPs take down they risk legal action by the customer who owns the sites. If they do not take down, they risk legal action by the complainant. The complainant is generally under no obligation to prove the illegality of the material.
The ISP is put in the invidious position of being judge and jury in these matters. Presumably the relevant legislation applies also to companies. I give a hypothetical example that relates to a topical issue. There could be a site attacking Nestle, making allegations that its aggressive marketing of baby milks in the third world was adding to infant mortality. Obviously, the company would not like that. It could easily put pressure on the ISP to remove the site. ISPs are likely to think carefully about who is most likely to sue them. The system is weighted against small charities and pressure groups and favours large multinationals and those with clout, so the issue is therefore developing into an argument about freedom of speech.
Such issues need to be tackled in the short term so that the public are protected from the incidents that I have outlined. I should like a number of things to happen. Individuals should have the right of control over the use of their names as domain names. The Government should consult widely and work with ISPs to establish a clear procedure to deal with notice and takedown, even if, initially, that is a voluntary arrangement. The Government need to co-ordinate notifications to the Internet Service Providers Association, which currently receives different information and guidelines from different Departments. It would be good to see some joined-up thinking.
Once the Government have their own house in order, they should take a lead on co-ordinating international action, as there are wide differences in the way those problems are tackled across the world. For example, in the United States, ISPs remove material only on receipt of a court order, and in Belgium ISPs automatically pass complaints to a judicial police body, which makes all the necessary decisions. The web is world wide, and eventually we must have worldwide thinking. The public need a guarantee of their freedom to use the internet and be free from child pornography, fraud, slander and harassment.