Government to develop anti-online bullying strategy

Whitehall departments to work on promoting worldwide consensus on how to tackle problem

The government has given its backing to a request for the Home Office and the Department for Digital, Culture Media and Sport to develop a strategy aimed at building a global consensus on tackling online bullying and hate crime.

It follows a proposal by ethics watchdog the Committee on Standards In Public Life, which was commissioned by prime minister Theresa May to investigate the intimidation of parliamentary candidates and other public figures after last year’s general election.

The committee made 33 recommendations, most of which are designed to guide the behaviour of individuals and social media organisations – and not all of which were supported by May and the government in the formal response, published last week.

But the committee’s call for the Home Office and DCMS to “develop a strategy for engaging with international partners to promote international consensus on what constitutes hate crime and intimidation online” was endorsed.

The recommendation – which was described as requiring immediate action – is intended to address the transnational reach of social media and the discrepancies in international law that effective policing requires.

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“The government should therefore develop its existing international engagement on counter-terrorism and child exploitation to promote international consensus on definitions of hate crime and threatening speech,” the committee said.

In addition to agreeing to back the measure, the government also spelled out ongoing work on cyberbullying and hate crime, including being “actively involved” in Europe-wide efforts to develop an approach that “balances free speech with protection from harm”.

The response also cited work with the 57 member-states of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, and a cyber-hate working group established by the Inter-Parliamentary Coalition for Combating Antisemitism. 

May said the committee’s report had made “sobering reading” but also “points the way forward” with welcome recommendations.

“British democracy has always been robust and oppositional,” she said in her foreword to the response. “But a line is crossed when disagreement mutates into intimidation. All of us in public life have a responsibility to challenge and report intimidating behaviour wherever it occurs.” 

She added: “Government will act on the committee’s recommendations, as we set out in this response to their report. But the action we need to take to secure our democracy goes beyond committee reports and government responses, to the heart of how we conceive of political differences and how we treat each other.”

Other committee recommendations that the government backs include: consulting on the introduction of a new offence in electoral law of intimidating parliamentary candidates and party campaigners, and changing the law give candidates in council elections more privacy in relation to the publication of their home address on official documents.

Sam Trendall

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