01 February 2023

Online safety law must be ‘fit for the memory’ of social media’s young victims

01 February 2023

A proposed online safety law must be “fit for the memory” of youngsters who have lost their lives through social media, a children’s rights campaigner has told Parliament.

Among the names of young victims read out by Baroness Kidron at Westminster was Molly Russell, whose father Ian looked on as peers started to debate the draft legislation.

The schoolgirl took her own life after viewing harmful material on social media.

An inquest into the death of the 14-year-old concluded online content she viewed contributed to her death “in a more than minimal way”.

Speaking at the second reading of the Online Safety Bill in the House of Lords, Lady Kidron told how she had hosted the “saddest of events” on Monday, where parliamentarians at a briefing were shown the disturbing images and posts that had been algorithmically recommended to Molly before her death, but which had been defended by tech firms in court.

I have spent the last couple of days trying to put into words my feelings of listening to what Molly went through. It’s horrendous

The film director and child online safety champion said: “Something has gone terribly wrong.”

She added: “It is time now to end the era of tech exceptionality and mandate a level of product safety so the sector, just like any other sector, does not put its users at foreseeable risk of harm.”

The independent crossbencher went on: “While millions of children suffer from the negative effects of the online world, some pay with their lives.

“I hope the whole House will join me in not resting until we have a Bill fit for their memory.”

Introducing the Bill, digital, culture, media and sport minister Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay said: “We recognise the great suffering experienced by many families linked to children’s exposure to harmful content and the importance of this Bill in ending that.

“We must learn from the horrific events of the past to secure a safe future for children online.”

Labour frontbencher Baroness Merron said: “It does seem that every passing week reminds us why stronger online regulation is needed.

“Writ large is the damning verdict of the inquest into Molly Russell’s death.”

She added: “As we know, Molly Russell tragically took her own life after having been bombarded by material relating to depression, to self-harm and to suicide.

“Many platforms have upped their game since, but the need for this legislation has not diminished.

“There remain too many cases of children and vulnerable adults being exposed to digital content that is simply not appropriate.”

Human rights barrister Baroness Kennedy of the Shaws stressed the need to tackle algorithms.

The Labour peer said: “We heard from the Russell family that, even after Molly had died, that there on her technology, she was receiving, being pushed at her, stuff about suicide – and the child was no longer alive.

“This is not about soliciting information – this is about it being pushed in the direction of people.”

Paralympic gold medal winner and independent crossbencher Baroness Grey-Thompson paid tribute to the Russell family, whom she has met.

Highlighting the teenager’s tragic case, she said: “It was shocking to hear what various platforms deemed to be acceptable and I naively expected them to be better.”

Lady Grey-Thompson added: “I have spent the last couple of days trying to put into words my feelings of listening to what Molly went through. It’s horrendous.

“While we applaud the resilience and bravery of the Russell family, this is our chance to do so much more and to protect internet users.”

Independent crossbencher Lord Russell of Liverpool, who attended the presentation given by Molly’s father, said: “What we saw was truly shocking.

“But in some ways it was particularly shocking to me because as Ian shared some of his daughter’s diary, what she had written in the days and weeks before she died, I had a sudden jolt of recognition.

“Because what 14-year-old Molly was saying was almost identical to the transcript of the suicide note that my father wrote to my mother which I have in my desk at home.

“It has the same self loathing, the feeling of worthlessness, the belief – completely wrong – that one would be better serving those that you love and live with to depart from this life.”

He told the House his father, who was a Second World War veteran and had won the Victoria Cross, suffered from manic depression.

Lord Russell said: “I cannot even imagine the effect that it must have had on Molly to have the deluge of filthy, negative, awful, harmful content that she was deluged in 24 hours a day.

“Perversely, the more she looked, the more excited the algorithm got and the more she received.”

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