Petitions Committee recommends changes to law on online abuse

January 25, 2019

The House of Commons Petitions Select Committee has published its report “Online abuse and the experience of disabled people”.  The report follows a petition by Katie Price, who has a child with disabilities, which called on the UK government to make online abuse a specific criminal offence and create a register of offenders.  The petition was cut short by the 2017 General Election, but had attracted over 200,000 signatories.


An inquiry was launched, which considered the following questions:

  • What is the impact of online abuse, especially on people with disabilities?
  • Who is responsible for protecting people from online abuse? Are technology companies doing enough?
  • How well does the current law protect disabled people from online abuse? Does the law need to be changed?
  • How should online abuse be defined? Where is the line between legitimate freedom of expression, behaviour that is against the terms and conditions of social media sites, and abuse that should be against the law?
  • What support is there for victims of online abuse?

Report conclusions in summary

The Petitions Committee’s report is divided into three chapters. The first sets out what it heard about the experience of disabled people online. The second sets out the response to online abuse from social media companies and the UK government and some of the reasons disabled people feel their voices have not been heard within that process. Finally, it reviews the law as it relates to disabled people and online abuse.

The key findings were that disabled people have been forced off social media and that some organisations have been unwilling to act. Notably, a high proportion of abusive content against disabled people relates to football. Online abuse can destroy people’s careers, social lives and cause lasting damage to their health.

The Committee has agreed with the petitioners that the law on online abuse is not fit for purpose.  

It welcomed the Law Commission report into offensive online communications and its statement that the criminal law needs reform to protect people from online abuse.  However, it has concerns that the UK government may fail to act in a way that works for disabled people.

The report states that the police, the public and social media companies need a criminal law that is fit for purpose and draws a line between behaviour that can be tackled by private companies and behaviour that requires a criminal justice approach. It is not enough to repeat “What is illegal online, is illegal offline” as an excuse for inaction. Despite the Law Commission work, the Committee recommends that the government brings forward legislation to clarify the law as soon as possible. It also recommends that ministers set out a timetable for doing so in the Government response to this report, justifying any delay to Parliament.  Disabled people should be fully consulted.

The report’s key findings

  • The UK government must accept that self-regulation of social media has failed.
  • The government and social media companies must directly consult with disabled people on digital strategy and hate crime law.
  • Social media companies need to accept their responsibility for allowing toxic environments to exist unchallenged.
  • The government needs to recognise that the way disabled people are often marginalised offline plays a significant part in the abuse they receive online. It must challenge stereotypes and prejudices about disabled people, particularly among children and young people, and require proportionate representation of disabled people in advertising for its own services.
  • Disability hate crime is not fully recognised and perpetrators are not appropriately punished. The law on hate crime must give disabled people the same protections as those who suffer hate crime due to race or religion. To ensure that the law applies where a victim had been selected because they were disabled, the Committee recommends that it abolish the need to prove that hate crime against disabled people is motivated by hostility. It should be enough to prove that an offence was committed by “by reason of” their disability.
  • The criminal justice system is too quick to categorise disabled people as “vulnerable”. Hostility towards disabled people is often based on a perception that they are an easy target who cannot contribute to society.
  • It must be possible to see if someone has been convicted of a hate crime on the grounds of disability before employing them to work closely with disabled people. If the government acts on the Committee’s other recommendations, this should be possible through a Disclosure and Barring Service check.
  • The government must review the experience of disabled people when reporting crimes and giving evidence. Too many disabled people have not been treated seriously because frontline officers and staff do not understand disability.
  • The government needs to review the law on exploitation within friendships or relationships, often called “mate crime”. Social media companies need to review their processes and provide advice and support for those who identify as needing additional protection. The Committee found this so-called “mate crime” can lead to financial, physical and sexual exploitation.

Next steps

Following the publication of the report, the Committee will schedule a debate on the petition in Westminster Hall. MPs will be able to question the responsible minister about the UK government’s approach to online abuse, the petition’s requests and the findings on the online abuse of disabled people.