Do politicians care about our children’s safety?

Government’s Online Safety Bill has been shelved until at least the autumn and may even be scrapped

Children on the computer
(Image credit: Gary John Norman/Getty Images)

Do politicians care about our children’s safety? You wouldn’t think so from their lackadaisical attitude to protecting the young from online threats, said Judith Woods in The Daily Telegraph. Ian Russell is all too aware of these dangers. In 2017, his 14-year-old daughter Molly took her own life after viewing graphic content about suicide and self-harm. “I think Molly probably found herself becoming depressed,” he told the BBC. “She was always very self-sufficient and liked to find her own answers. I think she looked towards the internet to give her help and support.”

Instead, algorithms led her down a dark path of ever-grimmer content. The UK’s much-anticipated Online Safety Bill was due to tackle this problem by forcing tech platforms to protect users from harmful content. But last week it was announced that the bill had been shelved until at least the autumn. It may even be scrapped.

That may be the best thing for it, said Alex Hern in The Observer. At 230 pages before amendments, this sprawling bill has become hopelessly unwieldy. It covers everything from social networks’ obligation to remove harmful content, “to attempts to provide a working definition of news websites that doesn’t include Russia Today, through requirements to verify the ages of children and bans on taking politically motivated moderation decisions”.

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It has accordingly drawn fire from several quarters. Some see it as a threat to free speech: the former Tory leadership candidate Kemi Badenoch said it risked “legislating for hurt feelings”. Others have accused it of not going far enough to tackle online radicalisation. This criticism has spawned more amendments, further muddying the waters. Probably best to start again.

Two issues have made this bill especially contentious, said The Times. One is the level of fines companies could face: as much as 10% of their annual global income. This could amount to “vast sums” and deter big companies such as Google or Facebook from publishing anything even remotely controversial in the UK.

The other is the question of how “legal but harmful” content should be defined, and by whom. It mustn’t lead to people being denied a platform to express views that others merely claim to find upsetting. It’s a fiendishly hard balance to strike, but the Government, under the leadership of a fresh prime minister, must try again to devise a workable solution.

There is “overwhelming support” in principle for better protecting children online, and for making online platforms take some responsibility for the content they publish. “To abandon all attempts to police the internet would be appalling cowardice.”

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