'Above the law' social media firms face crackdown over teen harm, ministers vow

Posted On: 
5th February 2019

Ministers will launch a fresh crackdown on "above the law" social media firms today as they promise a raft of measures aimed a curbing online threats to young people.

Social media giants will be accused of having 'milked' legal protections to duck responsibility for harm.

Digital minister Margot James will vow to "force" tech giants like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to prioritise safety over their commercial interests, while suicide prevention minister Jackie-Doyle Price will liken the rise of self-harm content online to "grooming".

Education Secretary Damian Hinds has meanwhile pledged to do more to teach young children about online consent "from a very young age" in a bid to curb abuse.

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The joint call follows an outcry over the death of 14-year-old Molly Russell, who took her own life in 2017.

After her death, her Instagram account was found to contain self-harm related material, and her parents have suggested new laws may be needed to combat exposure to suicide and depression-focused content.

Raising Ms Russell's case in a speech at the Safer Internet Day conference later, Ms James will say. "Her tragic death is the latest consequence of a social media world that behaves as if it is above the law.

"In America and Europe these companies have legal protection from liability for user-generated content.

"Too many have milked this privilege for all its worth.

“We will introduce laws that force social media platforms to prioritise the protection of users beyond their commercial interests."

The minister's comments come ahead of a meeting with Facebook at which she is expected to discuss plans for a statutory "duty of care" on social media firms.

A spokesperson for the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport said: "Social media companies clearly need to do more to ensure they are not promoting harmful content to vulnerable people. Our forthcoming white paper will set out their responsibilities, how they should be met and what should happen if they are not."


Speaking at a separate conference, Suicide Prevention Minister Jackie Doyle-Price will today warn that online self-harm images are now so common that young people are becoming "normalised" to them.

And she will urge social media firms to "step up" and address the problem.

“We must look at the impact of harmful suicide and self-harm content online," Ms Doyle-Price will say.

"I am hugely encouraged that the Government’s forthcoming White Paper to address online harms will consider what more can be done to address this harmful content online.

"And in normalising it, it has an effect akin to grooming.

"We have embraced the liberal nature of social media platforms, but we need to protect ourselves and our children from the harm which can be caused by both content and behaviour."


In an interview with the Telegraph, the Education Secretary meanwhile said he wanted new relationship lessons in schools to be used to teach children about the risks of the internet.

Damian Hinds said schools needed to have "age appropriate" conversations with young people to help stop them falling victim to online predators.

"Consent has changed with the sharing of data, the sharing of pictures perhaps with people who are pretending to be something they are not and in the worst cases someone who is trying to groom a child," the Cabinet minister said.

He also called on social media companies to use their "great expertise" to screen out harmful images to users "who may already be in a vulnerable state".