Government must close legislative loopholes in the Online Harms Bill
Every day that we allow the online world to remain unregulated, we put our children at risk, writes Chris Elmore MP. | PA Images
The government needs to back up regulation with criminal charges for companies which flout the law, as well as extending legislation to cover scams which disproportionately affect the most vulnerable people
Over this past year, we’ve seen just how valuable a tool the internet can be. As we head into a Christmas unlike any other, millions of people across the UK will go online to send presents, order food, and connect with loved ones that they are unable to see in person. The online world has made facing the Covid-19 pandemic much easier than it would once have been.
But for all the positive aspects of the internet, there is also a darker side to this instantaneous connectivity. I’ve spoken before about my experience of bullying when I was younger, and I dread to think how much worse my experience would have been had social media been as prevalent as it is now, when I was a child. The tragic case of Molly Russell, who took her own life in 2017 after viewing material about self-harm on Instagram, underlines just how dangerous an unregulated online experience can be for young and impressionable people.
While I support the premise of the [Bill], I am concerned there are some vital elements missing
I’ve long been campaigning for tighter regulation of the online ‘Wild West’. I was pleased this week, two years after it was first mooted, the government finally published their response to the Online Harms White Paper consultation. This is long overdue, and while I support the premise of the response, I am concerned there are some vital elements missing.
While it is a positive step that social media companies will need to remove and limit the spread of harmful content or face billion-pound fines, the lack of criminal sanction feels like a missed opportunity. The government have said they plan to introduce legislation for criminal sanction only if companies fail to take the new rules seriously. But bitter experience shows us that this simply does not work. The government needs to back up regulation with criminal charges for those executives who flout the law and put our children at risk, rather than leaving them to mark their own homework.
There was also a glaring gap in the response on economic online crime. The Bill should be extended to cover scams and online phishing cons, which disproportionately affect some of the most vulnerable people in society.
Online regulation is a complex issue and creating effective and watertight laws takes time, but this legislation is already long overdue. It is disappointing that the government have failed to comprehensively tackle these vital issues. Every day that we allow the online world to remain unregulated, we put our children at risk. We all accept we have a responsibility to protect young people in the physical world; in the same way, we must also take responsibility for protecting them online.
I urge the government to bring this Bill forward as soon as possible in the New Year, and ensure they close the legislative loopholes I have identified to make sure that it properly protects our children from online harms.
We have seen too many tragedies already because of an absence of legislation. The Government must act immediately to prevent any more.
Chris Elmore is the Labour MP for Ogmore and chair of the APPG on Social Media.