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

A group of relatives has warned that the Online Safety Act does not go far enough to protect children on social media.

Relatives for Online Safety have sent a joint letter to Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Labor leader Sir Keir Starmer, urging both to pledge to do more for children’s online safety ahead of the looming general election.

The intervention by the parents of 11 children, whose deaths were in some way linked to social media, comes after Ofcom published its draft codes of practice for child safety, setting out how it expects online services to comply their new legal responsibilities to protect children online under the Online Safety Act.

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

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

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

Addressing political leaders directly, it adds: “In the next Parliament you will have a decisive opportunity to act. There is a significant groundswell of demands to do more. There is a genuine and deep-seated concern among parents across the country, and you will be aware of the growing calls for a fundamental reset in the way tech companies design their products.

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

“Simply put, we encourage you to make it clear to technology companies that they must design and build their services in a secure and fundamentally responsible way. If companies are unwilling to do this, they must be made clear that there is no longer a place for them in Britain.”

Cabinet meeting

Michelle Donelan, Secretary of State for Science, Innovation and Technology (Lucy North/PA)

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

The campaign group includes Ian Russell, father of 14-year-old Molly Russell – who committed suicide in November 2017 after seeing harmful material on social media.

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

In response, Ms Donelan said: “I sense your frustration about this and if we could fully implement the bill tomorrow I would, but there is a small trade-off.

“These are companies that are multi-billion dollar organizations. What we don’t want to do is do it so quickly that there are a lot of loopholes or they can be easily litigated and it gets eaten up in the courts for years. We want this to be robust, we want it to be bulletproof to make sure it actually delivers results.”

She added: “We have always said that the Online Safety Act was the beginning of the journey, not the final destination, and we must continue to build layers and build on that.

“What we have done is really big, groundbreaking, and it is more than any other country in the world has done in this area. Is the job done? Absolutely not, because our children and their well-being are more important than anything and we must always prioritize that, re-evaluate and go the extra mile.”

Ofcom chief executive Dame Melanie Dawes told the BBC’s Radio 4 Today program that the proposals would result in “major changes” for social media companies and that they would publicly name those who failed to comply with the rules.

“For the first time in law, they will be responsible for actually looking at their own services, who uses them, what the benefits are of course, but also what the risks are,” she said.

“Ofcom will be checking their homework and doing so transparently so that the public can see the results and the grades we provide.”

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

“Many companies under this scope have already begun to take additional child safety measures in anticipation of the Online Safety Act coming into effect. However, today’s consultation provides important additional detail that in-scope companies will need to address.

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

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

“These protections would have been in place years ago if they had not fallen victim to the conservative chaos. We should not forget that the current Business Secretary called the Online Safety Act ‘legislation for hurt feelings’ during the Tory leadership contest.

“Labor has repeatedly called on the Government to take tougher action and avoid delaying the crucial protections in the Online Safety Act. A Labor government would work with survivors and quickly issue a statement of strategic priorities for Ofcom that keeps pace with emerging threats.”

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