Watering down Online Safety Bill would be a major mistake - here's why: Jayne Dowle

I’m all in favour of free speech, but for the life of me I fail to see why pornography and destructive online content aimed at encouraging young people to self-harm and commit suicide deserves any kind of leniency at all.

So I’m having moral – and parental – trouble with the latest iteration of the Online Safety Bill, which returns to the Commons on Monday.

It’s now in the hands of Culture Secretary Michelle Donelan, the sixth senior Cabinet minister to inherit the legislation, first mooted in its current form under Prime Minister Theresa May in April 2019.

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Frankly, whilst there are some special cases, in particular people who are being bullied and manipulated online by their partners or ex-partners under the offences of domestic abuse and coercive control, I don’t give too much thought to what consenting adults get up in the digital realm.

Culture Secretary Michelle Donelan leaving 10 Downing Street, London, following a Cabinet meeting. Picture date: Tuesday November 22, 2022.Culture Secretary Michelle Donelan leaving 10 Downing Street, London, following a Cabinet meeting. Picture date: Tuesday November 22, 2022.
Culture Secretary Michelle Donelan leaving 10 Downing Street, London, following a Cabinet meeting. Picture date: Tuesday November 22, 2022.

It’s still horrible that hardcore pornography, for instance, is now so freely available online. I hate the fact that the culture it promotes - that girls and women are willing victims, and males almost always the aggressor in intimate relationships – is harming our simple human capacity for love and affection.

My concern however is that the proposed strengthening of age checks for those wishing to access online porn, and steps being suggested to tighten the digital algorithms which send it the way of those who might have been innocently browsing, don’t seem forceful enough.

As a mother of a 17-year-old daughter I’m constantly vigilant at what she might be seeing online or who might be attempting to contact her insidiously under the guise of a friendly person of her own age. And she is pretty tech-savvy. If she was five years younger, I would be even more worried. When my son (now 20) was at primary school, in Year Six, a clever boy in his class managed to download pornographic materials on the class computers. At the age of 11. In a school.

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The Online Safety Bill, we are told, will contain stronger measures to ensure that companies verify the age of users. However, anyone who has ever witnessed a young person setting up an online account will now that it’s very easy indeed to add a few years onto an age without the platform demanding further checks.

Youngsters always know the latest hacks to get around any restrictions put in place. I’d suspect that the inherent problem with this Bill is that practice will run ahead whilst theory is still being put on the statute books.

It is also virtually (excuse the pun) impossible to cover all bases. Whilst pornography, in my view, would be far better off behind a paywall, so that only registered subscribers can access it (much like Netflix, Amazon or any number of media companies) exchange of ideas is far more difficult to police.

The case of young Molly Russell, the 14-year-old from Harrow, north London, who was found dead in her bedroom in November 2017, should never be far from Ms Donelan’s mind. After her death, it emerged that this seemingly untroubled child had been viewing masses of content related to suicide, depression and anxiety online.

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In a landmark ruling at an inquest in September, a coroner ruled that Molly died not from suicide, but from “an act of self-harm while suffering from depression and the negative effects of online content”.

This is where the difficulties with liberalism come in. Ministers have abandoned plans to remove ‘legal but harmful’ material on the grounds that it could obstruct free speech. Obviously there is no copyright on ideas, however dangerous they might be.

However, focusing on user-generated content – which could be anything from recipes to race hatred - sees the issue in only one dimension. Content only becomes ‘harmful’ when it’s shared with other people. As one clever commentator on digital matters says, this is “analogue thinking in a digital age”.

There is one positive development. A set of amendments will boost protections for women and girls online by adding the criminal offence of controlling or coercive behaviour to the list of ‘priority offences’ in the Bill. This means platforms will have to take proactive protective steps - such as guaranteeing measures to allow users to manage who can interact with them or the content they produce.

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As it stands, platforms typically only respond when online harassment is flagged to them through complaints, by which time the damage - through sharing intimate photographs for example, or waging an online vendetta campaign – is likely to have been done.

What is also positive is that the legislation proposes to hit errant social media platforms in the pocket, by imposing hefty fines if they fail to comply with new regulations.

However, by trying to keep the tech firms onside and uphold the principle of ‘free speech’ the government is missing a massive opportunity to protect the most vulnerable individuals of all, our children.

It would be a fitting legacy for the Conservatives, yet I see nothing absolutely convincing which will prevent another tragedy like the case of young Molly Russell happening again. Or stop impressionable children accessing damaging pornography. Who would want any of this on their conscience?