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Government can’t tackle online harm without cracking down on online scams

4 min read

Failing to tackle online scams in the Online Harms Bill makes a mockery of the government's promise to create world-leading online protections and will hit vulnerable people hardest.

World beating Covid testing. World beating track and trace. The government is fond of promising the world, but its record on delivery leaves a lot to be desired.

And so it is with the upcoming Online Safety Bill, the government’s flagship legislation to tackle online harms (due to be introduced to Parliament this year). 

When announcing plans for the Bill in December, the Secretary for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Oliver Dowden promised that it would create the “most comprehensive online safety regime in the world”, setting a standard for the rest of the globe to follow. 

Again, however, there is a big gap between government’s rhetoric and what it is delivering. The Online Safety Bill is not without ambition. It will give tech companies a legal responsibility for the online safety of their users. It will also give Ofcom new powers to crack down on offensive social media content, and block access to online services that fail to protect children and other users.

These are important steps. But as new research from the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute (on whose advisory board I sit) shows, the Bill will leave gaping holes in consumer protections online, especially when it comes to stopping online financial harms — and vulnerable people will be hit hardest. 

What the Secretary of State fails to understand, is that you can't carve up online content into categories like you could newspapers and books; regulating one and not the other

The charity’s research shows that the UK’s inadequate regulation has helped drive worryingly high levels of online financial crime, particularly since the start of the pandemic. People with mental health problems have been disproportionately affected, and are three times more likely to have been the victim of a scam.

Unsurprisingly, these scams — which are increasingly sophisticated — are causing great financial and mental strain for many people who are already struggling during the pandemic. 

But despite clear evidence of the harm online scams cause, the Digital Secretary has ruled out addressing them in the Online Safety Bill. The rationale is that to be proportional, fair and impactful, Bill should simply focus on user-generated content, like social media content. 

Yet, this logic involves making a false distinction between social media and scams. As Money and Mental Health’s research shows, it is extremely common for people to encounter scams dressed up as social media posts by friends or family. Six in ten UK adults say they have seen these kinds of scams on social media platforms, and four in ten people have encountered them in the past month.

What the Secretary of State fails to understand, is that you can't carve up online content into categories like you could newspapers and books; regulating one and not the other. That's just now how the world works any more. Whether content is generated by users, advertisers, retailers or scammers, protections need to be in place.

This underlines the case for including online scams in the Online Safety Bill. Specifically, Money and Mental health is calling for Ofcom to be charged with forcing platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to act more quickly in tackling online crimes. 

Nor is the charity alone in making this call. Organisations as diverse as UK Finance (the industry body for financial services) and the City of London police have all made the case for government to use the Online Safety Bill to address online scams and fraud.

It’s time for the government to put this right, by including online scams in the Bill when it is introduced into Parliament later this year. Failing to do so will not only make a mockery of its promise to create world-leading online protections — it will also leave vulnerable people defenceless against online crime.


Jeff Smith is the Labour MP for Manchester Withington.

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