Online harassment and abuse is “stifling debate and ruining lives”, according to Yvette Cooper, who is calling on police and prosecutors to follow the Guardian’s lead in unmasking the true extent of the problem.
The senior Labour MP warned that misogyny, racism and homophobic abuse were all growing online, as was revenge pornography, in which people distributed sexual photos or videos of former partners without permission.
It came as the former cabinet minister Maria Miller, who now chairs parliament’s women and equality committee, said the time had come for a “wholesale review” of the laws that govern online activity.
The comments come after the Guardian launched a major series called the Web We Want, which revealed the darker side of online comments on its own website.
Cooper called for online threats, harassment and stalking to be included in the Crime Survey for England and Wales, and said other media providers should carry out research similar to that done by the Guardian.
She welcomed a Crown Prosecution Service consultation on cyber-related offences, but said there was still no regular reporting of stalking, harassment or threatening behaviour of a criminal nature.
“In the 1970s and 80s women across Britain and across the world took to the streets to ‘Reclaim the Night’. Women and men campaigned together for safer streets, for stronger action to stop physical violence against women, and to argue that there should be no no-go areas for women – the streets and public spaces should belong to everyone,” she said.
Cooper argued that abuse on the internet was today’s equivalent, and she has launched a campaign called Reclaim the Internet, which will hold a conference in late May.
Miller said there was now an urgent need for legislation that would support police work in an online age, and said MPs were planning to get together to try to drive forward the agenda.
“There needs to be a wholesale review of the way the law works for the most prevalent online crimes, and that includes online abuse,” she said.
She said that a new law around revenge pornography introduced a year ago had given people confidence to bring forward complaints, driving up the numbers from a handful of cases to regular reporting of the issue. The challenge, argued Miller, was to help the police by identifying types of abuse online so they did not have to rely on a “patchwork of law” to deal with different issues.
“There is growing recognition that a laissez-faire approach ... isn’t working,” she added.
But Polly Vernon, the author of Hot Feminist, who suffered a steady stream of low-level abuse online, said it wasn’t just about things that were unlawful.
She said she “felt dehumanised, mildly depressed, anxious and body dysmorphic” after an outpouring by her critics, who she said were “swept up in the sport of being cruel on Twitter”.
“What they do isn’t high-level trolling, of the kind Cooper’s concerned with; it isn’t death or rape threats, it isn’t anonymous,” she said, arguing that people felt it was admissible to attack her after columnists wrote negatively about the book.
“I think people don’t entirely realise that what they are doing is bullying, shaming, piling in en masse on one individual who may well suffer badly as a result of that treatment. I did.”
Vernon said that she was now utterly disinclined to write with honesty about her life experiences and admitted it took therapy to help her get over it. “I have almost disengaged from Twitter now. It’s the only way I can bear to write and publish things I truly think, feel and behave.”
Cooper agreed that there was a risk that people were being driven offline when the internet ought to be a “forum for wild and wonderful debate, passionate argument and free speech”.
She said the silencing of women daring to speak their mind ought to be of great concern. Cooper’s campaign is cross-party and will focus on how police and prosecutors can tackle hate crimes, threats and intimidation.
It will also look at the responsibilities of social media platforms, which have taken action to improve reporting and blocking mechanism, but which could do more to counter hate speech. Cooper said the Guardian had led the field with the Web We Want series, but said it wasn’t just journalists who were targeted.
The conference will also look at what individuals can do when faced with abuse. The MPs involved want to make sure that the next generation do not think that online misogyny is acceptable.
This article was written by Anushka Asthana Political editor, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 20th April 2016 07.00 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010