The Online Harms Bill Cannot Wait

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For years, online safety was deemed as a somewhat distinct discipline from safeguarding in general, but the ever-deepening insinuation of the internet and the increased online risks and harms for children has upended this belief.

Now, children have easy access to the internet on a broad range of devices, and it plays a fundamental part of their daily lives from education to entertainment. 

During the pandemic and lockdown, the UK's internet usage has surged to record levels, which has increased some of its darkest elements, too. For instance, there has been a huge rise in reports of online child abuse imagesincluding 8.8m attempts to access online child abuse content in April 2020. Meanwhile, measures to protect children from cyberbullying, exposure to inappropriate content, radicalization, and all manner of other online dangers are under unprecedented stress. There is an urgent need to strengthen our defenses against this and other modern threats to keep children safe. 

What is the Online Harms Bill?

The Online Harms Bill is a proposed law based upon a government white paper. The white paper outlines measures "to make the UK the safest place in the world to be online." It also includes efforts to create "efficient markets where the benefits of technology are shared widely across communities; ensure the safety and security of those online; and maintain a thriving democracy and society, where pluralism and freedom of expression are protected." 

The idea for a broad internet protection bill began in 2017, and the white paper project was launched by former Chancellor and then-Home Secretary Sajid Javid in April 2019. It involved consultation with academic, think tanks, children's rights groups, and the technology industry, including participants ranging from Silicon Valley giants to UK SMEs. 

Preventative measures to keep children safe online form a cornerstone of the bill. It proposes expanding Ofcom's remit in fining tech companies. The bill would also introduce measures to protect children from age-inappropriate content, make services more accountable and prevent children from signing up to services that are age inappropriate for them.

An unconscionable delay

Identifying issues is simple, proposing solutions is difficult, and enacting upon them is harder still. The Online Harms Bill has not progressed to parliament, despite lobbying from children's rights groups including the NSPCC and IWF.

It has already been delayed until after the June recess, and Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) minister Caroline Dinenage has said she could not commit to bringing a draft of the bill to parliament until the end of 2021. 

This delay prompted the Chair of the Lord's Democracy and Digital Committee, Lord Puttnam, to express concerns that it may not come into effect until 2023 or 2024. He said to the BBC: "Here's a bill that the Government paraded as being very important - and it is - which they've managed to lose somehow." The government maintains that the bill is a priority, but notes that the coronavirus has slowed the process.

Meanwhile, online advertisers remain remiss to act on many of the issues that the bill hopes to remedy, suggesting that legislation is the only way forward. Tragically, although advertisers are willing to pull ads (and therefore significant revenue streams) due to fake news, political misinformation or public outcry, they have repeatedly ignored calls from the likes of the NSPCC and other children’s online safety campaigners to do the same to sites and services which host child sexual abuse imagery. 

A call on the industry

At a recent virtual roundtable, Chief Constable Simon Bailey, The National Police Chiefs' Council lead for child protection, and chief constable of Norfolk police said: "The online harms white paper has the potential to make a real difference. But at this moment in time, too many children are being abused online. So much more must be done by the tech companies. It should have been done years ago, and they still have a long way to go to give me the confidence that children can be safe when they go on the web."

Companies like Impero are working hard to help schools and other key players keep children safe, but the online threat has never been more severe, and we need all the help we can get to push the topic at a government level.

By applying pressure to online companies and the government, in close partnership with organizations like the IWF and NSPCC, we can push the Online Harms bill through. Every day that this bill is not passed is a failure and a very real threat to children’s lives.

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