The online harms bill should be “toughened up” to combat online abuse and renamed “David’s Law” in memory of Sir David Amess, a former Conservative minister has said.
Mark Francois, a former armed forces minister, said Sir David, a close friend, had become “increasingly concerned” about what he called the “toxic environment” in which MPs, and particularly female politicians, were abused online.
“If the social media companies don’t want to help us drain the Twitter swamp, then let’s compel them to do it by law because they’ve had more than enough chances to do it voluntarily,” he told MPs during the debate to pay tribute to Sir David’s 38 years in the Commons.
“He [Sir David] was appalled by what he called the vile misogynistic abuse which female MPs had to endure online and he told me very recently that he wanted something done about it. So let’s put, if I may be so presumptuous, David’s Law onto the statute book.
“The essence would be that while people in public life must remain open to legitimate criticism, they can no longer be vilified or their families subject to the most horrendous abuse, especially from people who hide behind a cloak of anonymity with the connivance of the social media companies for profit.”
It came as other MPs revealed the death threats and other abuse they had faced. Dominic Raab, the Justice Secretary, disclosed on Monday morning that he had received at least three threats on “life and limb” in the past two years, with the latest being of an acid attack.
Chris Bryant, the Labour MP, said a man has been arrested over a threat on his life after he returned from abroad just a day after Sir David was killed while holding his Friday constituency surgery. South Wales Police said a 76-year-old man had been arrested on suspicion of malicious communications.
“I got back on Saturday and the first message in my inbox was this death threat, pretty clear, so I notified the police and they have taken action,” he said.
The revelations come amid news that social media companies could face legal requirements to identify anonymous users in police or abuse investigations under new online harms laws.
Damian Collins, who is chairing the parliamentary committee scrutinising the planned new laws, said he believed there was a “strong case” for technology firms to be required to have enough personal information so an online abuser could be identified as part of any investigation into them.
“If they do anything that is in breach of the law or the platform’s police, they could be identified to law enforcement authorities,” he told The Telegraph. “People would then understand that if they post abusive material, they could be traced back, even if they posted under an assumed name.”
His comments are significant in offering a means by which legislation could be introduced to tackle anonymous abuse after both Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, and Mr Raab signalled support for a “close look” at a crackdown in the wake of Sir David’s death.
Mr Collins accepted there could be concerns over whether such rules could be exploited in totalitarian states, but said such governments already used spyware to target critics online or restricted access to the internet.
Mr Raab said he did not want to “send a message to tyrants” that they could expose campaigners who needed anonymity. But he added: “On balance, I think there is a case for really looking very carefully at this. I don’t see why people should be able to abuse the position on social media from a veil of anonymity.”
Mr Collins said that the committee was also looking to see whether Ofcom, the media watchdog, had sufficiently tough powers to investigate and tackle algorithms that drove people to ever more extremist content.
He cited Facebook research which found that 64 per cent of all people joining extremist groups was due to the platform’s own recommendations.
Mr Collins said he also backed a requirement on social media firms to monitor the activities of closed groups, such as extremists which is currently not in the draft Bill.
Ofcom will have powers to impose multi-billion pound fines on the social media companies, up to 10 per cent of their global turnover.
However, Mr Collins suggested there could be scope for powers to bring a criminal prosecution if there was evidence a company had been negligent, similar to powers in data protection laws.