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Online Safety Bill, Back on the Table

Manny Roberts, Regulatory Affairs Manager at The IPM.

05 December 2022

The online safety bill will return to parliament on December 5th after the latest postponement in July of this year. The bill is the first of its kind in the world and the IPM will be watching its progress with great interest.

The coroner in the recent inquest into the suicide of 14-year-old Molly Russell concluded that the “negative effects of online content” contributed to her death, after she viewed over 2,000 pieces of content related to suicide, self-harm and depression in the six months before her death in 2017, the first verdict of this kind.

The ruling seems to have finally stoked a fire in parliament. It’s particularly disappointing that it took a young teenager taking their own life for there to be fresh impetus for a bill that could play a role in saving lives. Despite this, after the delays this year due to the number of changes that have taken in parliament, it’s very pleasing to see it back as a government priority.

With culture secretary Michelle Donelan indicating the bill will become law by the end of the current parliamentary session in spring 2023, there appears to be gathering momentum as has been indicated by the number of recent additions and amendments to the bill. These have included the inclusion of fines of 10% of global turnover for breaching pledges of the act and non-consensual “deepfake” pornography and “downblousing” being made illegal before it returns to parliament next week, both additions that aim to strengthen the act.

More controversial, and part of the reason for the lack of progress until this month, was opposition to the inclusion in the original bill of references to addressing content that is “legal but harmful”. Concerned Conservative backbenchers and free speech advocates accused the bill of attempting to legislate for hurt feelings resulting in all references to “legal and harmful” being removed which effectively removes protections for adults and may also reduce its effectiveness in protecting young people.

The Molly Rose Foundation, a charity set up by Molly Russell’s family in the wake of her death, have publicly commented on the fact it was content that was deemed legal but harmful that played a significant role in her suicide. In addition, as was noted by boss of the Samaritans Julie Bentley, the troubling impact of harmful content does not stop when someone turns 18.

Though social media platforms will be required to introduce systems to allow users to filter harmful content they don’t wish to see and for those same tech giants to apply their own terms and condition more strictly, it remains to be seen whether this will be an opportunity missed to protect vulnerable people, regardless of age.

Despite the politicking and legitimate accusations of the bill being watered down, it’s welcome news that it will be discussed in parliament and efforts are being made to protect the mental welfare of young people. On the day when an NHS Digital report has announced that one in four 17- to 19-year-olds in England had a probable mental disorder in 2022, it’s a matter of urgency for steps to be taken to improve the mental health of the UK’s population and if the bill works to prevent the deaths of young people and families being left devastated, it should be regarded as a success.