The government is facing growing criticism from children’s organizations for its failure to protect young people from harmful content online, amid fears that key legislation promised in the Conservative Party’s election manifesto 2019 to strengthen security on the Internet is threatened.
The Observer understands from sources close to the talks that hugely controversial and sensitive changes to the Online Safety Bill were due to be announced in parliament this week by Culture Secretary Michelle Donelan after government ministers were consulted with them days.
But, as Donelan struggles to strike a difficult balance between making children safer online and maintaining free speech after just a few weeks of publication, an announcement about abandoning the so-called ‘legal but Harmful” for adults was pushed back, with some disagreement. is raging in government over how to proceed.
Last night the Molly Rose Foundation, set up following the suicide death of 14-year-old Molly Russell after watching harmful material online, and the NSPCC, called on the government to act quickly and not water down the project of law. Children’s Commissioner Rachel de Souza, writing in the Observer, lists his heartbreaking experiences speaking to children about their exposure to harmful material online and says ministers have a ‘once in a lifetime’ chance to act.
Donelan, who was appointed secretary of state for digital, culture, media and sport less than three weeks ago by Rishi Sunak, has already been warned by officials that the entire online security will run out of parliamentary time and will therefore fall altogether, unless it is expedited in the spring statute book.
Such a failure to legislate would be considered a disaster by online safety activists and would represent a huge failure of the machinery of government.
In its 2019 manifesto – following tragedies such as the Molly Russell case – the Tories promised to ‘legislate to make the UK the safest place in the world to be online’.
But progress on the bill has been slowed by the complexity of online regulatory issues, as well as competing demands from the free speech lobby and child safety campaigners, and the fact that three different prime ministers with their own agendas and opinions have occupied No 10 for the past four months.
The rules in the existing bill would have meant that social media sites, including Facebook and Instagram, would have been subject to Ofcom regulation and potential multi-million pound fines if they had not prevented adults and children to see material deemed “harmful” but not illegal, such as content about suicides and self-harm.
But following an outcry from free speech advocates and some right-wing Tory MPs, who argued the rules would mean companies would be forced to take down material that people had a right to see, it is understood that Donelan proposed to remove the “harmful but legal” for adults, while retaining them for children.
Critics of the proposed changes, however, argue that it would further seriously weaken protections for children in the bill, as many children lie about their age to gain access to adult sites.
A recent Ofcom survey found that one in three children lie about their age to access adult content on social media. So under the planned changes, children who successfully fake their age could still access content deemed legal but harmful even to adults.
Sources close to the talks insist, however, that the rules on child age verification will be strengthened by the bill through the use of the latest technology and that Ofcom will play a significantly increased role through further other ways to minimize the risk of exposure of children to harmful substances. Material.
But the Molly Rose Foundation said it was “imperative” nothing was done to the bill that would weaken protections for children. The charity pointed out that the inquest into Molly’s death in September showed that “harmful but legal” content was often the most dangerous.
Ian Drury, Trustee of the Molly Rose Foundation, said: “Recent statistics indicate that four school-aged children die by suicide every week, so it is imperative that action is taken and that parliamentary action is not diluted. How else can this be considered anything other than a failure in our collective duty to these vulnerable and currently unprotected young people.
The full inquest into Molly Russell’s death concluded in September this year that she “died of an act of self-harm while suffering from depression and the negative effects of online content”. The coroner said Molly had been “exposed to things which could have influenced her in a negative way”.
Ian Russell, Molly’s father, pointed out that although the bill contains additional measures to protect children, without more effective age verification to prevent children from using harmful sites, these measures risk be ineffective.
Sir Peter Wanless, chief executive of the NSPCC, said: “It is time the government delivers on its promise to make the UK the safest place to be online by ramming through the online security by Parliament.
“The need for legislation could not be more urgent. More than a month after a coroner concluded that social media contributed to Molly Russell’s death, the sites our children use are still awash with dangerous content about self-harm and suicide because there is no has no consequence for industry inaction.
“It is absolutely crucial that any changes to the bill do not let tech companies off the hook or weaken the protections children need. The Culture Secretary has promised to strengthen legislation for children and can do so by ensuring that every social media site protects young users from harmful content and holds senior executives personally responsible for failures causing harm severe.
In her Observer De Souza’s article says the bill is “a unique opportunity to protect all children, especially the most vulnerable.”
But she adds that “whatever changes are made to the Bill during its journey through Parliament, to satisfy the different camps, there must be no weakening of its provisions as far as the safety of our children is concerned.”
A DCMS spokesperson said: “Protecting children and stamping out illegal activity online is a top priority for the government. The Culture Secretary has promised to bring the Online Safety Bill back to Parliament as soon as possible with the intention of passing it this session.
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