Labour frontbenchers back Board of Deputies plan to combat online abuse

Andrew Kersley

Labour frontbenchers have backed a three-point plan by the Board of Deputies to combat online hate – including pushing the government to fine social media companies who fail to remove abuse from their platforms.

At a ‘Connected‘ talk run by the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the first Labour conference event ever run by the group, shadow cabinet members David Lammy and Nick Thomas-Symonds backed the proposed additions to the online harms bill.

The three-point plan also called for the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism to be included in community guidelines and for community standards teams to be based in the UK.

The government’s proposed online harms bill aims to hold companies accountable if they do not tackle harmful content online, but little progress has been made as a parliamentary debate on the white paper has been repeatedly delayed.

Commenting on the plan put forward by the Board of Deputies, Shadow Justice Secretary Lammy said: “Let me say on those three things, it would be extraordinary not to adopt the IHRA definition frankly.

“I think it’s incredibly difficult to properly police this if you do not have local staff that are culturally aware. One of the things is, very sadly because of the devastating antisemitism that crept into the Labour Party, the majority the government now have is significant.”

“We will do what we can as an opposition, but clearly the key to this is in that online white paper, which has not yet come forward despite the urgency and seriousness of these issues.”

The government first proposed the new online harms bill in 2019 in response to the story of 14-year-old Molly Russell, who took her own life after viewing graphic online posts about suicide and self-harm.

The bill aims to create a duty of care on social media companies to protect their users from harmful content or abuse but current proposals do not offer regulators the ability to fine those who fail to comply.

Thomas-Symonds suggested at the conference event that any regulator included in the bill “has to have teeth” and as such must have the ability to punish failing companies with fines.

Lammy agreed: “Nick’s absolutely right about self-regulation. We have got to get serious about this, and of course we note in Australia they’ve gone down the road of fines and in Germany they’ve gone down the road of serious fines.”

Former Labour deputy leader Tom Watson announced in 2018 that the party would support fines for social media companies who fail to police online abuse, arguing that self-regulation on these sites was not working.

Australia and Germany have both already implemented similar laws, with social media companies in the latter facing fines of up to €50m if they neglect to promptly remove problematic content.

The conference panel on combatting online hate was chaired by the chief executive of the Board of Deputies Gillian Merron, and featured former Labour MP Ruth Smeeth alongside the two shadow cabinet members.

The ex-MP for Stoke-on-Trent North vividly described her experiences with online antisemitism, including receiving 25,000 pieces of abuse in the 24 hours after the Chakrabarti report was published in 2016.

Smeeth said: “I haven’t been able to wear my Apple Watch since that weekend. Because when you start to get death threats come through on your wrist and on something that is physical – I have not been able to wear it since because that was just too overwhelming for me.”

On coping with the torrent of antisemitic abuse, she added: “I just couldn’t look at it anymore and it was how we all needed to protect our mental health. Fundamentally, we’re all human beings. This has real-life consequences.”

The Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) launched an investigation into institutional antisemitism in the Labour Party in May last year. The final report is set to be published in the coming weeks.

Today’s event formed part of Labour’s virtual conference. The in-person conference was cancelled earlier this year due to Covid. The online replacement is running events for Labour members until September 22nd.

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