The next Prime Minister must do more to protect children from harm online

Sir Peter Wanless

4 minute read

Less than a week after Boris Johnson quit, the number of MPs who have thrown their hats into the ring to be the next Prime Minister has already reached double the figures.

It is amid this uncertainty that the report stage of the Online Safety Bill begins today. While there are hugely important questions about the direction of the country, it is crucial that legislation is not derailed or delayed by the uproar in Westminster that tech lobbyists will seize and exploit.

I was delighted to see Damian Collins, who championed the bill, appointed to guide it through its next steps. Now this government and future governments must be ready to make the big calls that will strengthen the protection of children online for generations to come.

This vital legislation must deliver on the ambition to make the UK the safest place in the world for a child to be online

This is an opportunity for anyone aspiring to be the next Prime Minister to reaffirm the importance of protecting children and families from harm and recognize the importance of a strong online safety bill.

There can be no more important mission for a government than to protect the safety of our children.

After four years in the making and scrutiny by several parliamentary committees, this vital legislation is set to deliver on the ambition of making the UK the safest place in the world for a child to be online.

In the four years of the bill’s gestation, the scale of harm children face online has reached record levels. Online grooming offenses recorded by police increased by 84%.

The tsunami of sexual abuse we have seen during the pandemic has not abated. Without clear systemic change and unambiguous legal requirements that reach the highest offices of tech companies, this level of preventable abuse risks becoming “the new normal.”

It is unforgivable that these are the biggest sites where children are most targeted. Despite knowing they’ve had a problem for years, Meta, Snapchat, and others continue to develop and operate products that are dangerous by design.

Sexual violence has been allowed to permeate their sites. Four out of five grooming offenses target girls, with abusers using social media to coerce teenage girls into producing a constant supply of self-generated child abuse images.

But the way to disrupt this entirely preventable abuse and prevent social media from being used as a conduit for evil is well within our grasp.

The Online Safety Bill is about regulating systems that amplify misogynistic hate, design features that actively facilitate child abuse and harmful algorithms that deliver harmful and disturbing content about suicide and self-harm to our children.

It will address the mechanisms of social media that contribute to real societal harm and leave a lasting scar on families. Despite what some might suggest, this is not about legislating for hurt feelings.

In fact, Ofcom will not regulate content or act as a free speech censor.

Security and freedom of expression can go hand in hand. Freedom of expression is not just about the ability to voice your own opinions, but the right not to be drowned out or kicked out of platforms. No one should be disenfranchised from the town square by online bullies and algorithm-powered abuse.

We know there are well-funded attempts to weaken or bury the legislation and the pressure from big tech is mounting.

The next Prime Minister must stand firm with children and families. We cannot allow lobbyists to dilute child protection with the usual recipe of promises on one side and threats on the other.

Tech companies undeniably make a significant economic contribution, and we should welcome their investment in the UK. But at the same time, the cost of online child abuse has ballooned to £2billion a year.

The unquantifiable damage toll is due to industry inaction, but felt by children and families who must deal with the life-altering impacts of preventable online abuse.

It is felt by the ever-increasing burden on law enforcement to respond to increasingly complex and difficult online harms.

The Online Safety Bill can represent the best of our political system, with government, parliament and civil society working together to put in place strong, world-leading protections for children.

The government has been willing to engage constructively at every stage and the key amendments it has proposed to better address child sexual abuse are testimony to this.

Children and families across the country need the strong progress of the online safety bill to continue. And may the next Prime Minister redouble his commitment to protect our children from harm.

Peter Wanless is chief executive of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC).

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