08 May 2024

Online safety rules don’t go far enough, bereaved parents say

08 May 2024

A group of bereaved parents have warned that the Online Safety Act does not yet go far enough to protect children on social media.

Bereaved Families for Online Safety have sent a joint letter to Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, urging both to pledge to do more for child online safety ahead of the approaching general election.

The intervention from the parents of 11 children, whose deaths involved social media in some form, comes after Ofcom published its draft children’s safety codes of practice, which set out how it expects online services to meet their new legal responsibilities to protect children online under the Online Safety Act.

It will require social media platforms to take action to stop their algorithms recommending harmful content to children, and put robust age-checking measures in place to protect them.

In their letter, the parents say that while this is an “important moment” and they are “grateful” that regulation is “slowly but surely taking shape”, they say “much more needs to be done” and they have “so far been disappointed” by the “lack of ambition” around the safety laws, and fear the rapid evolution of technology means that laws and regulation will “need to work hard to keep up”.

“We collectively fear that Ofcom’s proposed approach may be insufficient to tackle the growing risks of grooming, sexual abuse, content that promotes or facilitates acts of serious violence, and the active incitement of acts of suicide and self-harm among young people,” the letter says.

Directly addressing the political leaders, it adds: “In the next Parliament, you will have a decisive opportunity to act. There is a considerable groundswell in demands for more to be done. Across the country, there is a genuine and deeply held concern among parents, and you will be aware of the growing calls for a fundamental reset in the way that technology companies design their products.

“As a senior politician but also as a father, we strongly encourage you to heed those calls and ensure that children’s online safety can no longer be considered as an afterthought.

“Put simply, we encourage you to make clear to tech companies they must start to design and build their services in a safe and fundamentally responsible way. If companies are not prepared to do so, they should be made to understand there is no longer be a place for them in the UK.”

Appearing on BBC Breakfast and putting questions to Technology Secretary Michelle Donelan, the parents expressed their frustration at what they claimed was inaction from tech companies and the delay in the Online Safety Act being enforced as Ofcom carries out its consultation process and publishes draft codes of practice before seeking their approval from Parliament, a process expected to take another 12 months to complete.

The campaign group includes Ian Russell, the father of 14-year-old Molly Russell – who took her own life in November 2017 after viewing harmful material on social media.

He said tech firms were “buying as much time as they can” by claiming they were waiting for Ofcom to publish all its codes before making changes to their platforms.

In response, Ms Donelan said: “I feel your frustration on this and if we could fully implement the Bill tomorrow I’d be doing it, but there is a bit of a trade off.

“These are companies that are multibillion-pound organisations, what we don’t want to do is do it so fast that it has lots of loopholes or that they can easily litigate and it’s chewed up in the courts for years. We want this to be robust, we want it to be bulletproof to make sure that it actually delivers.”

She added: “We’ve always said that the Online Safety Act was the start of the journey, not the end destination and we need to continue to layer up and build on that.

“What we’ve done is really big, is groundbreaking, and it’s more than any other country in the world has done in this space. Is it job done? Absolutely not because our children and their wellbeing matter more than anything and we should always be prioritising that and re-evaluating and going that bit further.”

Ofcom chief executive Dame Melanie Dawes told the BBC’s Radio 4 Today programme the proposals will result in “big changes” for social media companies and would publicly name those who did not comply.

“They will be responsible for the first time in law for actually looking at their own services, who’s using them, what the advantages are of course, but also what the risks are,” she said.

“Ofcom is going to be marking their homework and doing so transparently as well so that the public can see the results and the marks that we’re giving.”

Alice Campbell, head of public affairs at trade body techUK – which represents many of the social media platforms in scope of the Online Safety Act, said: “We welcome this consultation which is an important step forward in the implementation of the Online Safety Act.

“Many in-scope companies have already started to put additional child safety measures in place in anticipation on the Online Safety Act coming into force. However, today’s consultation provides important additional detail that in-scope companies will need to engage with.

“We look forward to continuing to work alongside members, Ofcom and the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology to ensure a robust and effective online safety regime.”

Labour’s shadow technology secretary Peter Kyle said: “It is welcome to see Ofcom’s new proposals for keeping children safe online, including strong age checks and tackling algorithms which target young minds.

“These protections would have been in place years ago if they hadn’t fallen victim to Conservative chaos, we cannot forget that the current Business Secretary called the Online Safety Act ‘legislating for hurt feelings’ during the Tory leadership contest.

“Labour has repeatedly called on the Government to take tougher action and to stop the crucial protections in the Online Safety Act being delayed. A Labour government would work with bereaved families and quickly issue a Statement of strategic priorities for Ofcom which keeps up with new dangers.”

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