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Labour accuses government of dallying over online harms bill

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The Labour Party has called for the UK government to implement new laws to protect people from hate speech and other online harms, amid criticism of Twitter for its slowness to respond to high-profile antisemitic comments on its platform.

Last week, the grime musician Wiley posted a series of explicitly antisemitic comments on Twitter and Instagram, insulting Jewish people, suggesting that they deserve to be killed, and supporting antisemitic tropes and conspiracy theories. After some confusion involving an hours-long ban on Wiley’s account, Twitter eventually decided to ban him for seven days.

Jo Stevens, the shadow secretary of state for digital, culture, media, and sport, has argued that social media companies’ failure to tackle racist hate speech – as well as disinformation – highlights why new laws are needed to protect people online.

“The failure to tackle these high-profile examples of hate speech shows why we so desperately need proper legislation to force social media companies to keep people safe online,” she said. “Social media companies have had repeated opportunities to show they can police their sites effectively.”

“But when high-profile individuals are allowed to keep their platforms after spreading vile antisemitic abuse – and then doubling down when challenged – it’s clear that self-regulation isn’t working.”

Labour also accused the government of delaying the introduction of a much-anticipated online harms bill. The government’s online harms White Paper was published in April 2019, laying out proposals to give online platforms a statutory duty of care to protect their users from harmful content such as child exploitation, terrorist propaganda, and pro-suicide content, with the oversight of an independent internet regulator (most likely Ofcom).

Last month, the Lords Democracy and Digital Technologies Committee criticised the government for delays in implementing these proposals. Progress has been slowed down further by disruption to parliamentary timetables due to the coronavirus pandemic, and groups campaigning for these laws have warned that their introduction could be delayed until 2023 or 2024. This could potentially give tech giants generous opportunities to lobby against strict measures.

A recent report from the Commons Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport Select Committee warned that coronavirus misinformation and disinformation has spread “virulently” on social media and a regulator must be appointed to hold social media companies to account.

“The government promised this bill more than a year ago, it’s high time they showed they take the safety of those who use the internet as seriously as the needs and influence of the big tech firms.”

A spokesperson for the Department for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport commented: “There is no delay, and we continue to work at pace to deliver the most comprehensive regime to tackling online harms anywhere in the world. We will bring forward new legislation after we publish the full government response this autumn as planned.”

“We will introduce new laws to place a duty of care on online platforms to ensure they keep their users safe from a wide range of harms including antisemitism.”

Wiley’s antisemitic comments sparked criticism from campaigners, celebrities, and politicians. The comments are being investigated by the Metropolitan Police. Meanwhile, many Twitter users have today started a 48-hour virtual “walkout” in protest against the company’s slow response.

Britain’s Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis accused Twitter and Facebook (which owns Instagram) of lacking responsible leadership in their response to the comments. He wrote to the CEOs of the two companies, stating that “[their] inaction amounts to complicity”.

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