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Labour Says It Would Consider Changing The Law To Help Remove Online Hate Speech

After a BuzzFeed News exclusive revealing British police forces have tried and failed to get hate blogs taken down, the shadow digital secretary Tom Watson said action is needed on the issue.

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The Labour party has said it would be prepared to change the law to protect the victims of online abuse and force digital media companies to take down offensive and threatening content.

Tom Watson, the party's deputy leader and shadow secretary of state for digital, culture, media, and sport, said he would be writing to the government to make sure it does more to rid social media and blogging platforms of abusive and hateful posts.

Last week BuzzFeed News reported that British police forces have tried and failed to get material taken down from the blogging platform WordPress.com. One blog was suspected to have been created by a convicted troll who has been jailed for sending anti-Semitic abuse and threats to public figures.

Responding, Watson called on the government to alter its forthcoming digital charter to include tougher measures on online abuse.

"It is unacceptable that WordPress refuses to take down offensive and threatening posts even after they’ve been contacted by victims and it is ridiculous that they are able to ignore similar requests from UK police forces," he said.

"Labour has a simple view: If a post breaks the law, tech companies must take responsibility and take the post down.

"Policing the internet is complicated but hate crime can never be tolerated. If the law on removing content is insufficient the government needs to look at whether it can be changed.

"The government has promised to make Britain the safest place to be online but that pledge will never be realised unless this issue is addressed in the digital charter. I will be writing to the Secretary of State to ensure that it is."

Internet abuse has become an urgent political topic. Figures obtained by the BBC from 38 UK police forces through the Freedom of Information Act show that the number of malicious communications offences almost doubled in 2016 to 79,372, from 42,910 in 2015.

The government has previously pledged to tackle this issue: The 2017 Conservative party manifesto included measures to protect people from abuse online, part of a list of measures included in a new "digital charter".

A resulting green paper on online safety, published earlier this month, provided details on a proposed "social media code of practice", and promised a "robust regulatory environment" with greater protection for users and, if necessary, sanctions for companies that don't follow the rules.

Victims of abuse are also adamant that more must be done. Maggie Chapman, who had police patrol outside her house after an online abuse campaign of abuse against her accused her of being a paedophile, told BuzzFeed News that sites need to clamp down on trolls being able to create multiple accounts.

"We need to be lobbying the social media sites to get them to act quicker. Also the police need extra training on cyberbullying. My local force, Northumbria, were lovely but admitted their officers didn't know who [could] deal with it.

"Also verifying accounts would help instead of just allowing the trolls to have dozens of fake accounts. One of the worst things for me was, [my abusers] created fake accounts, in my name and family members' names. They also had numerous troll accounts, so as soon as we got one closed down another six popped up."

Caroline Criado-Perez, the writer and campaigner, was the subject of abuse on Twitter in 2013 while she was campaigning for a woman to be featured on the £10 note. This resulted in the jailing of two of her abusers in what was thought to be the first custodial sentences for social media trolling in the UK.

She told BuzzFeed News that WordPress.com's refusal to take down offensive posts was "absolutely rubbish" and argued that public pressure may be more effective than legislation in getting it to change.

"They're kind of where Twitter were in 2013 when I got all the rape and death threats and they were just not set up for it, nor did they have the mindset of admitting their responsibility," she said.

"Public pressure changed that. I actually think that's a more likely way of changing things than the law, which would require global cooperation, which is all but impossible. You'd need American law to agree with British law, which isn't going to happen.

"Things have changed at Twitter. It's not to say there aren't horrifically racist and misogynistic things said on that, of course there are, but the tools to deal with it are so much more advanced than they were. In 2013 you had to fill in a whole form and type out what the threat was."

Criado-Perez said that while policy change is needed, the real change needs to come from people themselves: "These site should be doing more, and make it easier for victims – but ultimately what needs to happen is that people stop doing it [abuse] in the first place. And that requires huge societal change."

A government spokesman said: "We strongly support the freedom and innovation the Internet brings. At the same time, behaviour that isn’t tolerated offline should not be able to thrive on a computer screen.

"Online safety will be at the heart of the Government’s Digital Charter, including new expectations on companies to identify, monitor and remove harmful material."

Patrick Smith is a senior reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.

Contact Patrick Smith at patrick.smith@buzzfeed.com.

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