Online Harms Bill must pass NSPCC tests to properly protect children, charity says

PA

The Government has been urged to ensure its Online Harms Bill meets six new tests set by the NSPCC to ensure the regulation of social media properly protects children online.

The charity said any proposed legislation around online regulation must meet its tests if it is to be considered successful and set a global standard in protecting children on the web.

In its new report, How the Wild West Web Should be Won, the NSPCC said any regulation must create a robust duty of care, comprehensively tackle online sexual abuse and put legal but harmful content on an equal footing with illegal material.

The tests all call for robust transparency and investigatory powers, the ability to hold the industry to account with both criminal and financial sanctions, and to give civil society a voice for children through user advocacy arrangements to counterbalance pressure from industry lobbying.

The Government is expected to publish its full consultation response to the Online Harms White Paper – which was published in April last year – in the coming weeks, with legislation due in the new year.

But NSPCC chief executive Peter Wanless warned that should the regulation fail to pass any of the six tests it will mean “rather than tech companies paying the cost of their inaction, future generations of children will pay with serious harm and sexual abuse that could have been stopped”.

The call comes as new analysis of figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show that the number of online sex crimes against children recorded by police reached the equivalent of more than 100 a day in England and Wales between January and March this year.

The NSPCC says they expect this figure will have risen further during lockdown as online activities increased.

Mr Wanless said “industry inaction” was fuelling the number of abuse cases against children.

“The Prime Minister has the chance of a lifetime to change this by coming down on the side of children and families, with urgent regulation that is a bold and ambitious UK plan to truly change the landscape of online child protection,” he said.

“The Online Harms Bill must become a Government priority, with unwavering determination to take the opportunity to finally end the avoidable, serious harm children face online because of unaccountable tech firms.”

The new tests are being supported by Ian Russell, who has campaigned for more online regulation since the death of his daughter Molly, who took her own life in 2017 after viewing suicide and self-harm content.

“Today, I can’t help but wonder why it’s taking so long to introduce effective regulation to prevent the type of harmful social media posts we now know Molly saw, and liked, and saved in the months prior to her death,” Mr Russell said.

“Tech self-regulation has failed and, as I know, it’s failed all too often at great personal cost.

“Now is the time to establish a regulator to protect those online by introducing proportionate legislation with effective financial and criminal sanctions.

“It is a necessary step forward in trying to reclaim the web for the good it can do and curtail the growing list of harms to be found online.”

A Government spokeswoman said: “Social media companies will need robust systems in place to keep their users, and particularly children, safe and there will be tough sanctions for those that do not fulfil their duty of care towards them.

“We have been working closely with NSPCC colleagues in developing our plans, and thank them for their contribution.”

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