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Peter Wanless: The next Prime Minister must redouble efforts to protect children from online harms

Peter Wanless: The next Prime Minister must redouble efforts to protect children from online harms
4 min read

Less than a week since Boris Johnson resigned, the number of MPs who have thrown their hat in the ring to be next Prime Minister has already reached double figures.

It is amidst this uncertainty that report stage of the Online Safety Bill begins today. While there are hugely important questions about the direction of the country it is crucial that the legislation is not derailed or delayed by the tumult in Westminster which tech lobbyists will seize upon and exploit.

I was pleased to see Damian Collins, who has been a champion of the Bill, appointed to see it through its next stages. Now this and future governments must stand willing to make the big calls that will strengthen online child protection for generations to come.

This vital legislation must deliver on the ambition to make the United Kingdom the safest place in the world for a child to be online

This is an opportunity for everyone who wants to be the next Prime Minister to reassert the importance of protecting children and families from harm and to recognise the significance of a robust Online Safety Bill.

There can be no more important mission for any government than protecting the safety of our children.

Four years in the making, and after the scrutiny of multiple parliamentary committees, this vital legislation must deliver on the ambition to make the United Kingdom the safest place in the world for a child to be online.

In the four years the Bill has been gestating, the scale of harm children face online has reached record levels. Police-recorded online grooming offences have increased by a staggering 84 per cent.

The tsunami of sexual abuse we saw during the pandemic has not subsided. Without clear systemic change, and unambiguous legal requirements that reach the highest offices of tech companies, this level of preventable abuse risks becoming ‘the new normal’. 

Unforgivably it is the biggest sites where children are most targeted. Despite knowing they have had a problem for years, Meta, Snapchat and others continue to develop and operate products that are dangerous-by-design.

Sexual violence has been allowed to permeate their sites. Four in five grooming offences target girls, with abusers using social networks to coerce teenage girls into producing a constant supply of self-generated child abuse images.

But the vehicle to disrupt this entirely preventable abuse, and stop social networks being used a conveyor belt of harm, is firmly in our grasp.

The Online Safety Bill is about regulating the systems that amplify misogynistic hate, design features that actively facilitate child abuse, and harmful algorithms that serve up a damaging and disturbing suicide and self-harm content to our children.

It will address the mechanics of social media that contribute to real societal harm and leave a lasting scar on families. Despite what some might suggest, it isn’t about legislating for hurt feelings.

In fact, Ofcom will not be regulating content and will not act as a censor on free speech.

Safety and free expression can go hand in hand. Free expression isn’t just about the ability to voice your own views, but the right not to be drowned out or forced off platforms. No one should be disenfranchised from the town square by online bullies and algorithm-fuelled abuse. 

We know there are well-funded attempts to weaken or bury the legislation and the pressure from big tech is ramping up.

The next Prime Minister must stand firm on the side of children and families. We can’t allow lobbyists to water down child protection with the usual recipe of promises on one hand and threats in the other.

Tech firms undeniably make a significant economic contribution, and we should welcome their investment in the UK. But at the same time the cost of online child abuse has swollen to £2bn a year.

The unquantifiable toll of harm is driven by industry inaction but felt by children and families left to deal with the life-changing impacts of preventable online abuse.

It is being felt by the ever-growing burden on law enforcement having to respond to increasingly complex and challenging online harm.

The Online Safety Bill can represent the best of our political system, with government, Parliament and civil society working together to build strong and world-leading protections for children.

Government has been willing to engage constructively at every stage and key amendments they have put forward to better tackle child sexual abuse are testament to this.

Children and families up and down the country need the strong progression of the Online Safety Bill to continue. And for the next Prime Minister to redouble their commitment to protect our children from harm.

 

Peter Wanless is chief executive of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC).

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Read the most recent article written by Sir Peter Wanless - We cannot afford yet another delay to the Online Safety Bill

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