Legislation to protect our children

Sally-Ann Hart, Conservative MP for Hastings and Rye, writes to Rye News on the need for the government’s online safety bill.

I know that many local residents are concerned about the ‘Wild West’ of the online world, especially as regards children, so I thought I might write this month about the Government’s Online Safety Bill which is currently progressing through Parliament.

This Bill is a vital, world-leading piece of legislation that will ensure that tech companies take more responsibility for the safety of their users, in particular children. I was at the Council of Europe last week, as part of the UK Delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly, and one of the most pertinent briefings was from Europol about the sexual exploitation of women and girls online. I was able to talk to other European parliamentarians about the UK Government’s Online Safety Bill and the importance of holding tech companies to account. As I had supported the amendments regarding the personal liability of directors of tech companies, I was also able to discuss the importance of the amendments, and that the Government had taken these on board as the Bill progresses. These amendments double down on accountability and enforcement of legislation.

I have been really impressed with Michelle Donelan, the DCMS Secretary of State who has engaged extensively with colleagues since she was appointed to the role, to hear views on this legislation. Concerns were raised by many parliamentarians, stakeholders and members of the public on a number of issues, including a desire to go further on child protections, wanting better protections for free legal speech and a concern that too much power over what we see and engage with online rests with tech giants themselves. Making progress on each of these important concerns should not come at the expense of the others. The Bill has therefore three main aims of strengthening the protections for children, insuring that adults’ right to legal free speech is protected, and creating a genuine system of transparency, accountability and control to give the British public more choice and power over their own accounts and experience.

The Bill’s key objective, above everything else, is the safety of young people online. Importantly, the Children’s Commissioner will be made a statutory consultee for Ofcom in its development of the relevant codes of practice to ensure that the measures relating to children are robust and reflect the concerns of parents.

I know that a number of residents across Hastings and Rye have emailed me raising their concerns that the Bill will impact on free speech. Free speech is absolutely fundamental to our democracy, and it is morally wrong to censor speech online that is legal to say in person, which has been the crux of the concerns raised. Ms Donelan has removed the wording “legal but harmful” from the Bill in relation to adults, and has replaced it with a fairer, simpler and more effective mechanism called the Triple Shield, which will focus on user choice, consumer rights and accountability whilst protecting freedom of expression. The same approach is being taken when assessing the proposed new “harmful communications offence”, which when applied, could potentially have criminalised legitimate discussion of some topics, which is why this has now been removed from the Bill. However, to retain protections for victims of abusive communications, including victims of domestic abuse, the Government will continue to progress new offences for false and threatening communications.

As regards transparency and accountability, the regulator, Ofcom, will hold companies to account if they fail to comply with the requirements in the Bill by issuing fines or notifications requiring them to take steps to remedy compliance failures. To further strengthen transparency for users, Ofcom will be given the power to require services to publish the details of any enforcement notifications, including notices requiring them to remedy breaches, that they receive.

Violence against women and girls is especially prevalent online. This is unacceptable and will also be addressed through the Online Safety Bill. Controlling or coercive behaviour will be listed as a priority offence which means that companies will have to take proactive measures to tackle this content. In addition, the Victims’ Commissioner and Domestic Abuse Commissioner will be named as statutory consultees for the codes of practice, to ensure that they are consulted by Ofcom ahead of drafting and amending the codes of practice. The Bill will also criminalise the sharing of people’s intimate images without their consent. This, in combination with the measures already in the Bill to make cyberflashing a criminal offence, will significantly strengthen protections for women in particular as they are disproportionately affected by these activities.

As the online world is currently akin to the Wild West, the Online Safety Bill is a piece of legislation that is probably the most important thing we, as parliamentarians can do, especially for our children.


Image Credits: Buck Jones Productions .

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