22 June 2023

New powers will stop tech firms from stonewalling bereaved families, peers told

22 June 2023

The Government has promised new legal powers to ensure bereaved families are not “stonewalled” by tech companies if their children have died after accessing harmful online content.

Culture minister Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay conceded to calls in the House of Lords for families and coroners to be given powers to access information held by tech companies which could help identify a child’s cause of death.

Coroners are legal officials tasked with giving a cause of death in circumstances including suicides.

Crossbench peer Baroness Kidron called for ministers to give coroners legal powers to request information from Facebook and other “service providers” which could be relevant to the death of a child who has used their platform.

Lord Parkinson said the Government would “bring forward a package of measures” to address her proposals when the House of Lords enters the final stages of its line-by-line scrutiny of the Online Safety Bill.

He told peers: “The package of amendments will ensure that coroners have access to the expertise and information that they need in order to conduct their investigations, including information held by technology companies, regardless of size.”

We must ensure that companies cannot stonewall parents who have lost a child and that those parents are treated with the humanity and compassion they deserve

Lord Parkinson added: “This includes information about how a child interacted with specific content online as well as the role of wider systems and processes, such as algorithms, in promoting it.

“The amendments we will bring forward will also help to ensure that the process for accessing data is more straightforward and humane. The largest companies must ensure they are transparent with parents about their options for accessing data and must respond swiftly to their requests.

“We must ensure that companies cannot stonewall parents who have lost a child and that those parents are treated with the humanity and compassion they deserve.”

Lady Kidron, a filmmaker and advocate for children’s rights online, had earlier told the Lords she would withdraw her proposals to amend the Bill because of the Government’s promises.

She said: “While parents have been fighting for access to information, those same companies have continued to suggest friends, material and behaviours that drive children into places and spaces in which they are undermined, radicalised into despair, and come to harm.

“In no other circumstance would it be acceptable to withhold relevant information from a court procedure.

“It is both immoral and a failure of justice if coroners cannot access and review all relevant evidence, and for the families it adds pain to heartbreak as they are unable to come to terms with what has happened because there is still so much they do not know.”

Conservative former culture secretary Baroness Morgan of Cotes gave her backing to the changes, telling peers: “The noble lady’s various amendments are not only sensible but absolutely the right thing to do, and I think it is a great tragedy in many ways that we have had to wait for this piece of primary legislation for these companies to start being compelled at all.”

Lib Dem peer Lord Allan of Hallam, who worked as Facebook’s director of policy in Europe between 2009 and 2019, said he thought social media giants would welcome the proposals.

The former Sheffield Hallam MP said: “If I still worked for an online service, I think I would welcome this shift of responsibility, frankly, for these decisions and I hope we will see this new process, that will be introduced as I understand it in later amendments, work smoothly with good co-operation from regulated service.”

However, he warned ministers needed to ensure “the right checks and balances” were in place to prevent personal data being used inappropriately, and questioned if there might be conflicts with existing data protection law.

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