HC Deb 20 April 2004 vol 420 cc430-1W
Mr. Hancock

To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department, what action he will take to(a) close down race hate websites and (b) protect named journalists who are being targeted by these sites. [160802]

Fiona MacTaggart

Websites of this kind are objectionable and I can understand why journalists and other persons identified on them might feel concern.

Whilst we are keeping the legislative position under review, existing laws already provide a level of protection.

It is an offence to assault people or damage their property, and a person who behaves in that way or takes active steps to commit those offences is liable to prosecution, regardless of how or where, or on what website he came to identify his victim.

It is also an offence to incite another person to commit a criminal offence. While it might not be possible to take action against a foreign-based internet service provider for disseminating the incitement, that would not in itself prevent prosecution of a person in this country who had been responsible for the content of the website. There is, of course, a question about what constitutes incitement. Publishing information such as names and addresses of those belonging to an identified organisation or espousing a particular view may not necessarily be enough in itself to constitute incitement but it is for the police and prosecutors to decide in all the circumstances of a particular case and on the available evidence whether an offence has been committed.

The Protection from Harassment Act 1997 makes provision that a person may be guilty of an offence if he engages in a course of conduct which he knows or ought to know causes harassment. The Act is concerned with the effect of the behaviour rather than the type of conduct—any actions that foreseeably cause distress may amount to harassment. The Act also provides, as a civil remedy, the opportunity to apply to the High Court for an injunction. Victims of harassment by animal rights extremists have successfully used the Act to secure orders which, among other things, have required the removal of their personal details from websites. In these cases however acts of harassment beyond identifying persons on a website were proved.

The internet service provider industry itself is sometimes able and willing to refuse to carry objectionable material on websites. In the UK, most service providers have acceptable use policies, under which they reserve the right to remove a customer's material, or refuse to carry it, not only if it is illegal but also in certain other circumstances, which can include where material causes concern or needless anxiety to others or publishes details of individuals without their consent. The UK's Internet Watch Foundation encourages service providers to refuse to handle sites which violate their acceptable use policies. The great majority of UK service providers operate responsibly. The government has also discussed with other governments how we can co-operate to tackle this problem, given that it raises issues of cross-national jurisdication.

It is important that those with concerns should make them known to the police and to the Internet Watch Foundation.