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The Online Safety Bill must be strengthened to end years of industry inaction on child safety

4 min read

Olivia (pseudonym) was 15 when she called Childline in despair.

She was followed by a man twice her age on Instagram. They started chatting and he moved the conversation to WhatsApp. He groomed and manipulated Olivia into having video chats with her breasts exposed.

Olivia told one of our counsellors about the toll of this abuse. “Every time I did these things for him, he would ask for more and I felt like it was too late to back out”, she said. “I feel so stupid. This whole thing has been slowly destroying me and I’ve been having thoughts of hurting myself.”

Olivia’s experience is not isolated. It is a reflection of what children up and down the UK face every day on the social media they use and the games they play. But it is entirely preventable. It is a direct result of years of failure by tech firms to embed basic child safety measures into the design of their platforms.

Ofcom must now be given the ability to make firms use proactive technology to identify child abuse and grooming in private messaging

Today, MPs will debate the Online Safety Bill which can finally call time on industry inaction and force companies to provide systemic protections to stop preventable abuse once and for all.

It’s been four years since the NSPCC first secured a commitment from government to legislate to keep children safe online.

Since then, online child abuse crimes have increased by more than a quarter to record levels. This legislation is needed now more than ever. This is why it’s crucial the legislation succeeds.

The Culture Secretary, Nadine Dorries, has led from the front to ensure child protection is at the heart of the Bill. The government rightly wants to demonstrate global leadership with regulation that makes the UK the safest place for a child to be online.

With the second reading of the Online Safety Bill today, that vision is in their grasp. But we cannot lose the focus on children as the legislation progresses.

Our Time to Act report has set out a number of targeted and workable solutions to improve the Bill’s response to child sexual abuse.

By adopting our recommendations, the government has the opportunity to turn the child protection rhetoric into a comprehensive package of safety measures that will give the regulator, Ofcom, the powers and resources necessary to do its job on the new front line of child protection.

This means understanding and responding to the complexities of the problem.

Offenders use social media to form networks, advertise a sexual interest in children and signpost to illegal child abuse content hosted on third party sites.

Amending the Bill to combat the ways offenders facilitate abuse online could prevent millions of interactions with accounts that contribute to child sexual abuse.

And private messaging is where most where most child abuse takes place on social media and is rightly in the scope of the Bill. Ofcom must now be given the ability to make firms use proactive technology to identify child abuse and grooming in private messaging, such as PhotoDNA, which is commonly used by virtually all major sites.

Finally, ministers have an opportunity to improve the legislation so it does more to disrupt how abusers groom children on multiple social media sites and games, like in Olivia’s case. It is not too much to ask companies to address cross platform harm and risk assess for how their sites contribute to cross-platform abuse and to co-operate with each other to disrupt grooming.

We know self-regulation has failed with catastrophic consequences. Unless these measures are on the face of the Bill, tech firms will do the bare minimum and continue to put growth before safety.

At the NSPCC we know there will be opposition. There will be unhelpful philosophical and binary arguments between privacy and safety.

So, remember Olivia and thousands of the one-in-five internet users like her who are children. They have the right to safety and privacy from those who groom them and share images of that abuse. With some key improvements, the Online Safety Bill can give them that.


Sir Peter Wanless is the chief executive officer of the 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