PMQs: Social media company directors under fire as “enablers” of online hate

Elliot Chappell
© UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor

Today was the first Prime Minister’s Questions session since party conference season. It was also the first since the death of Conservative MP David Amess. Keir Starmer focused on online extremism, pushing Boris Johnson to commit to bringing forward the online safety bill and to ensuring it makes directors of companies criminally liable for failing to tackle harmful content on their platforms. Both of which the Prime Minister committed to in the session – although Johnson left himself some wriggle room, promising criminal sanctions for those “responsible for allowing this foul content to permeate the internet” instead of specifically naming directors.

Starmer’s focus this afternoon was on the “enablers” of online hate. “If we are to get serious about stopping violent attacks, we need to stop online spaces being safe spaces for terrorists. We need to ensure that unaccountable, arrogant social media companies take responsibility for their platforms,” he said. Notably, he rejected the idea of banning anonymity on social media platforms, a measure demanded by several MPs when the Commons paid tribute to Amess on Monday. Starmer noted that the move would not have stopped the death of Amess, nor that of Labour MP Jo Cox or PC Keith Palmer.

The tone of the exchange today was subdued. Starmer was keen to be “collegiate”. He made clear his party’s support for government efforts to tackle online hate, and knocked back Johnson’s repeated attempts to derail the session with the accusation that Labour is opposed to stopping violent offenders being released early. “After the week we’ve just had, I really don’t want to descend to that kind of knockabout,” Starmer told Johnson. Citing his experience as director of public prosecutions, and the experiences of other Labour MPs, he asked: “We can help, so will the Prime Minister capture the spirit that we’ve seen this week and agree to work with us on a cross-party basis to tackle violent extremism and its enablers together?”

The conciliatory approach determinedly pursued by Starmer this afternoon disrupted Johnson’s normally bombastic style. Coming out to pledge Labour’s support for the government’s online safety bill early in the session – on the condition that ministers bring forward the second reading of the legislation by the end of the year – knocked the wind out of Johnson’s sails. The Prime Minister today made an important concession on criminal liability, something Labour has long called for. The opposition is celebrating this development, and the commitment to fast-tracking the bill, as a win. The question is whether Johnson follows through on his promise. Labour has a job ahead to hold him to the pledges made today.

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