Some of the most “insidious” images of child abuse and violence against women and girls could evade new online safety laws, a group of MPs has warned.
The Commons’ Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Committee which is scrutinising the government’s draft Online Safety Bill says the legislation is currently neither clear nor robust enough to tackle some forms of illegal and harmful content.
In its report published today, the committee calls on the government to address types of content that are technically legal such as parts of child abuse sequences known as “breadcrumbing” or tech-enabled “nudifying” and deepfake pornography.
The MPs want such content to be brought into scope either through primary legislation or as types of harmful content covered by the duties of care.
‘A missed opportunity’
“In its current form what should be world-leading, landmark legislation instead represents a missed opportunity,” said Julian Knight MP, chair of the DCMS Committee.
“The Online Safety Bill neither protects freedom of expression nor is it clear nor robust enough to tackle illegal and harmful online content. Urgency is required to ensure that some of the most pernicious forms of child sexual abuse do not evade detection because of a failure in the online safety law.”
Frankie Thomas was just 15 when she took her own life after reading graphic online content relating to self-harm and suicide.
“I cannot convey the shock,” her mother Judy told Sky News. “And that’s it, final, it’s the end of the story. It’s just like that. We knew she had special needs and she was diagnosed with autism when she was five. But we had no idea this was in her mind.”
Frankie had high-functioning autism and attended a special educational needs school. An inquest into her death heard that she was at risk of impulsive behaviour and was vulnerable to suggestion.
The government says its Online Safety Bill is setting a gold standard for internet safety.
‘The bill will make the UK the safest place to go online’
A spokesperson for the Department of Culture, Media and Sport told Sky News: “We do not agree with the criticism of the committee. The bill has strict measures, including a duty of care to stamp out child sexual abuse, grooming and illegal and harmful content.
“There are also stringent rules to make sure tech firms and Ofcom protect people’s free speech and privacy, so content is not taken down without good reason.
“The bill will make the UK the safest place to go online while protecting freedom of speech.”
‘Draft bill falls short of quite a lot’
Laura Lyons, who set up the private investigations company Are They Safe, says there remain significant issues surrounding online safety.
“I don’t think the draft bill is robust enough,” she told Sky News.
“I think there needs to be a lot more protection for victims of domestic abuse, sharing of personal photos, a lot more protection for women and girls. We’re heading in the right direction but I think it falls short of quite a lot.”
Members of the DCMS Committee say the bill, as currently drafted, has not got the balance right between protecting freedom of expression and tackling harmful content.
What are the committee’s recommendations?
Among their recommendations, they have proposed the government make the broader definitions of harm compatible with international human rights law and provide greater clarity within the bill on plans to provide Ofcom as regulator with powers and users with redress.
A revised piece of legislation is expected in the coming months.
Anyone feeling emotionally distressed or suicidal can call Samaritans for help on 116 123 or email firstname.lastname@example.org in the UK. In the US, call the Samaritans branch in your area or 1 (800) 273-TALK