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19 June 2020

PM Boris Johnson commits to helping our campaign to fight internet trolls

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has made a firm commitment to raise our concerns about malicious tweets designed to provoke seizures in people with photosensitive epilepsy, with Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, Oliver Dowden.

In a personal letter to Tracy Cousins, Service Manager at the Epilepsy Society, and a constituent of the Prime Minister in Uxbridge, Boris Johnson wrote:

“The internet is now an integral part of everyday life across the UK. It can be a great force for good but equally can be misused, leading to harmful outcomes. We cannot ignore the very real harms which people face online every day.

“I recognise your specific concerns about the deliberate targeting of epilepsy sufferers online and would be happy to raise this issue with the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport as we consider the next stages of the Online Harms Bill.”

You can read the letter, in full, below.

Dear Ms Cousins,  Thank you for contacting me about the Online Harms Bill and protection for people with epilepsy. Firstly, can I take this opportunity to thank you and your colleagues at the Epilepsy Society for all you are doing to support those affected by this condition.  The internet is now an integral part of everyday life across the UK. It can be a great force for good but equally can be misused, leading to harmful outcomes. We cannot ignore the very real harms which people face online every day.  As you know, the Queen’s speech included a commitment to develop online harms legislation to improve internet safety for all to make the UK the safest pace in the world to go online, especially for children. The proposals will make companies more responsible for their users’ safety online. We intend to establish in law a new statutory duty of care on companies towards their users, overseen by an independent regulator. This regulator will set clear safety standards, backed up by mandatory reporting requirements and strong enforcement powers to deal with non-compliance.  In addition, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and the Ministry of Justice have engaged the Law Commission on a second phase of their review of abusive and offensive online communications. This will include considering whether coordinated harassment by groups of people online could be more effectively dealt with by criminal law. The Law Commission will review existing communications offences and make specific recommendations about options for reform, to ensure that criminal law provides consistent and effective protection against such behaviour.  I recognize your specific concerns about the deliberate targeting of epilepsy sufferers online and would be happy to raise this issue with Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport as we consider the next stages of the Online Harms Bill.  Thank you again for taking the time to contact me about this important issue.  Boris Johnson MP

Dear Ms Cousins,

Thank you for contacting me about the Online Harms Bill and protection for people with epilepsy. Firstly, can I take this opportunity to thank you and your colleagues at the Epilepsy Society for all you are doing to support those affected by this condition.

The internet is now an integral part of everyday life across the UK. It can be a great force for good but equally can be misused, leading to harmful outcomes. We cannot ignore the very real harms which people face online every day.

As you know, the Queen’s speech included a commitment to develop online harms legislation to improve internet safety for all to make the UK the safest pace in the world to go online, especially for children. The proposals will make companies more responsible for their users’ safety online. We intend to establish in law a new statutory duty of care on companies towards their users, overseen by an independent regulator. This regulator will set clear safety standards, backed up by mandatory reporting requirements and strong enforcement powers to deal with non-compliance.

In addition, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and the Ministry of Justice have engaged the Law Commission on a second phase of their review of abusive and offensive online communications. This will include considering whether coordinated harassment by groups of people online could be more effectively dealt with by criminal law. The Law Commission will review existing communications offences and make specific recommendations about options for reform, to ensure that criminal law provides consistent and effective protection against such behaviour.

I recognize your specific concerns about the deliberate targeting of epilepsy sufferers online and would be happy to raise this issue with Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport as we consider the next stages of the Online Harms Bill.

Thank you again for taking the time to contact me about this important issue.

Boris Johnson MP

 

Trolls send over 200 flashing images

Tracy Cousins wrote to the Prime Minister after Epilepsy Society suffered its worst ever attack on Twitter, with internet trolls sending over 200 flashing images, designed to provoke seizures in people with photosensitive epilepsy. They also targeted several of the charity’s followers, including nine-year-old Zach Eagling, who has cerebral palsy and epilepsy. Zach’s mum had posted videos of Zach taking part in a 2.6km challenge to raise money for the charity.

At least two people had a seizure as a result of the attack.

Personal response from PM

Tracy said: “I was really surprised to receive such a personal response from Boris Johnson when we are all still dealing with the current pandemic. I am really pleased to see that he appreciates just what an important issue this is for people with epilepsy.

“Having seizures is tough enough without anyone deliberately and maliciously trying to provoke them. In my role as Service Manager at the Epilepsy Society, I see on a daily basis just how debilitating seizures can be and the horrific injuries that they can cause. I hope his commitment will help us to get these malicious tweets criminalised and make social media safe for everyone.”

Zach's Law

The charity has been running a campaign - now called Zach’s Law - for over year to persuade the Government to criminalise this type of behaviour as part of its Online Harms Bill. It is asking the Government to:

  • Instruct the Crown Prosecution Service to give guidance on how best this behaviour can be prosecuted
  • Clarify the criminal law by making this behaviour a specific criminal offence
  • Include this behaviour within the definition of an “online harm” in the Online Harms Bill later this year. This will require social media companies to clamp down on its spread on their platforms.

Gruelling time on social media

Nicola Swanborough, Acting Head of External Affairs at Epilepsy Society, said: “The last few weeks on social media have been gruelling on account of these internet trolls. Our time has been spent blocking, hiding and reporting these malicious posts, in order to safeguard the people we support.

“Twitter have been very responsive in suspending and blocking violating posts and accounts. They are also working hard to try to control content around key words concerning epilepsy and seizures. But it is like trying to empty the sea with a bucket when someone needs to turn off the tap.

“We are delighted that Boris Johnson has recognised the problem and has promised to address the issue with his Secretary of State. If anyone can turn off the tap, Boris can. It is really important that the type of abuse we are seeing online that is designed to cause physical harm, is specifically included in the Online Harms Bill. And for the first time we feel real hope that Zach’s law will be included.”

Write to your MP

Find out how you can write to your MP and add your voice to our campaign to have safeguarding measures for people with photosensitive epilepsy - Zach's Law - included in the government's Online Harms Bill.