A couple whose teenage daughter took her own life after accessing suicide websites at school have welcomed the new Online Safety Bill introduced in Parliament today.
The bill was introduced by the government on Thursday and will give communications regulator Ofcom the power to impose fines or block sites that break the rules.
One of its main purposes is to prevent children from accessing inappropriate and harmful content.
Judy and Andy Thomas said they had no concerns about their 15-year-old daughter Frankie’s online use as she didn’t have a computer at home and her phone was monitored “so we thought she was safe.”
Ms Thomas found Frankie, who had high-functioning autism, dead in her closet after school in 2018.
It wasn’t until her school was asked to file a report on the day for the police that she discovered she had been accessing online mischief websites on a school iPad for two hours, including articles on suicide.
“The latest had two suicides and she copied one at home,” Ms Thomas said.
“We had absolutely no idea it was on his mind.”
A forensic background check over the past year on the school laptop also revealed that she had been accessing these types of websites for a long time.
“He’s still accessible, so I think this bill is really important if he keeps the kids safe, because if he stops what’s going on with Frankie, if they’d had a check, she’d still be here. with us,” Ms. Thomas said.
The Online Safety Bill has been in the works for about five years and was presented to parliament on Thursday.
What’s New in the Online Safety Bill?
Additions to the bill include the power to hold executives criminally liable if they fail to comply with Ofcom’s requests for information two months after the law comes into force, instead of the two years previously proposed .
Managers will also now be criminally liable for destroying evidence, failing to attend Ofcom interviews – or giving false information, or obstructing the regulator if he enters their offices.
The biggest social media companies must also deal with “legal but harmful” content under the updated proposals.
They will need to make risk assessments on the type of damage that might appear and state in their terms of service how they plan to deal with it.
What constitutes “legal but harmful” material will be defined by the government in secondary legislation.
Other changes to the Online Safety Bill include a requirement to report child sexual abuse to the National Crime Agency.
The government says news content will be exempt from regulations aimed at protecting free speech.
Earlier versions of the bill were accused of not being strong enoughand other recently announced changes include criminalize cyberflash and making porn sites guarantee that users are over 18.
Criminal behavior allowed to ‘riot’ online
Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries said tech companies had previously not been held accountable when harm, abuse and criminal behavior had been “run wild” on their sites.
“We don’t think about it for a second when we fasten our seat belts to protect ourselves while driving,” she said.
“Given all the risks online, it makes sense that we ensure similar basic protections in the digital age.
“If we don’t act, we risk sacrificing the well-being and innocence of countless generations of children to the power of uncontrolled algorithms.
“Since taking office, I have listened to people in politics, wider society and industry and strengthened the bill, so that we can achieve our main objective: making the UK the safest place to go online,” Ms Dorries said.
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Tory MP Damian Collins, chairman of the committee which reviewed the previous version of the bill, said it was a “huge moment for the safety of all internet users”.
“I am very happy to see that the government has taken on board so many of our recommendations, ensuring that we truly do make the UK the safest place to be online in the world. ‘Big Tech self-regulation has finally come to an end,’ he said.
Could new laws harm freedom of expression?
Some activists have said the “legal but harmful” targeting is a “censor’s charter” that could harm free speech.
“If you don’t remove it, Brits won’t be able to do normal things like crack jokes, ask for help and engage in healthy debate online,” said Jim Killock, head of Open Rights Group.
“There are now a lot of new and unworkable ideas being added at the last minute, making for a monstrous mix of apt-to-fail homework that will make minority groups less safe online.”
Anyone feeling emotionally distressed or suicidal can call the Samaritans for help on 116 123 or email [email protected] in the UK. In the United States, call your local Samaritans branch or 1 (800) 273-TALK