The next government must ensure the law governing online hate speech, harassment and extremism are up to date, MPs have said as the forthcoming general election puts the brakes on their inquiry.
The House of Commons home affairs select committee began its probe into hate crime in July last year. Due to the decision to hold a general election on 8 June, the committee, in a report published on 1 May, said it did not have time to consider its conclusions on a 'wide range' of issues.
The committee said: 'We hope that the home affairs select committee in the next parliament is able to consider this evidence further and propose wider recommendations on tackling hate crime and some of the central issues that emerged in our hearings, including far-right extremism and islamaphobia.
'We are publishing this short report in the meantime to address one aspect of our inquiry - the role of social media companies in addressing hate crime and illegal content online - on which we have taken considerable evidence and where we want our conclusions to inform the early decisions of the next government, as well as the immediate work of social media companies.'
The committee notes that relevant legislation for prosecuting online hate crime is spread across different acts of parliament, 'and each was passed before social media were mainstream tools, and some acts were passed even before the internet itself was widely used'.
Under the Malicious Communications Act 1988, it is an offence to send communications or other articles with intent to cause distress or anxiety. This covers all forms of communications such as email, faxes and telephone calls.
It is an offence, under section 127 of the Communications Act 2003, to send or cause to be sent by means of a public electronic communications network a message or other matter that is grossly offensive or of an obscene or menacing character.
In written evidence, the government identified four further acts of parliament that may be relevant to hate crime cases, the committee said. However, witnesses described the laws against online hate speech as being 'out of date and vague on the sort of language or behaviour that is illegal'.
The Crown Prosecution Service has published guidelines to clarify the circumstances in which a criminal prosecution should be brought. However, the Law Commission, in written evidence to the committee, said guidelines 'are no substitute for clearer statutory provisions'.
The committee recommends that the next government review the 'entire' legislative framework governing online hate speech, harassment and extremism, to ensure the law is up to date.
'It is essential that the principles of free speech and open public debate in democracy are maintained - but protecting democracy also means ensuring that some voices are not drowned out by harassment and persecution, by the promotion of violence against particular groups, or by terrorism or extremism,' the committee said.