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Calls to strengthen the Online Safety Bill

• Charity that first secured commitment for laws to keep children safe online say significant changes are needed if the Online Safety Bill is to be fit for purpose

Expert analysis shows current proposals will not tackle online grooming as Government urged to double down on child protection in the legislation

More than 40,000 people sign letter to Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries urging her to act decisively to disrupt child abuse

THE NSPCC is warning the Online Safety Bill needs significant strengthening to make it fit for purpose, just weeks before proposed new laws are due to be published.

Four years after the charity secured a commitment from the Government to legislate, Ministers have been told to bolster the Bill or risk missing its fundamental goal of keeping children safe.

The charity’s analysis shows current plans fail to address the complex nature and dynamics of online abuse and will not prevent children from coming to avoidable harm.

The NSPCC is warning that proposals to hold tech bosses to account risk being ‘all bark and no bite’, with senior managers escaping liability for exposing children to harm from negligent product decisions.

It comes as new polling shows overwhelming public support for the robust regulations the NSPCC say are crucial to combat child sexual abuse – but are missing from the current plans.

YouGov asked two and a half thousand UK adults for their views, including 109 adults from Wales, and the results show broad support across region, political party and age for the stronger measures needed to systematically disrupt online grooming.

The polling found that in Wales:

  • Four in five (83%) of Welsh adults think social media companies should have a legal duty to work with each other to prevent online grooming happening across multiple platforms
  • 91% want companies to have to understand how groomers and child abusers use their sites to abuse children or share child abuse material and take action to prevent it by law
  • 84% would support the appointment of a senior manager, or safety controller, to be held liable for children’s safety on social media sites
  • Two thirds (64%) of those with an opinion would support the named manager being prosecuted if they failed to protect children from serious harm 

Meanwhile, more than 40,000 people have signed an open letter to Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries demanding she toughen up the legislation to protect children from groomers.

To focus minds at the very top of tech firms, the NSPCC want a senior manager to be held liable for children’s safety on every platform, with fines, censure, and criminal sanctions the back stop for negligence.

They are also calling for the Bill to place duties on platforms to tackle grooming pathways which see offenders exploit social media sites to commit abuse across multiple platforms.

Experts said Ministers must close a gap in the legislation that will enable child abusers to continue legally using social media as a shop window to advertise their sexual interest in children.

This allows them to form networks with other offenders and post so-called digital breadcrumbs linking to child abuse content on third party sites.

Sir Peter Wanless, Chief Executive of the NSPCC, said: “Ministers must not forget the Online Safety Bill began as a child protection measure. But unless it is significantly strengthened this landmark legislation will fail to protect children from grooming taking place on an industrial scale.

“A succession of Parliamentary committees have drawn attention to child protection weaknesses within the draft Bill and public opinion is clear. There is now overwhelming support for Government to take steps to toughen up the legislation and focus on comprehensively preventing abuse.

“Public opinion is clear. There is overwhelming support for the Government to take steps to toughen up the legislation and focus on comprehensively preventing abuse.

“We want the Culture Secretary to act on this consensus and do everything possible to ensure social media can no longer be exploited by groomers to target our children for abuse with devastating ease.”

The Welsh Government recognises how important it is to keep children safe online and provides a range of information, guidance and resources for learners, families, teachers and governors on Hwb. It also produces, and updates annually, an action plan to protect children and young people online.

Cecile Gwilym, Policy and Public Affairs Manager for NSPCC Cymru/Wales, said: “Ensuring protection for children online requires UK-wide regulation and national prevention efforts to work in tandem.

“Devolved Governments play a crucial role in providing all children, their families and key professionals with education and training about risks and potential harms online, how to be safe online as well as providing information about where and how to access help and support.”

In the last few months three Parliamentary Committees have also recommended the Online Safety Bill is strengthened to disrupt abuse and the NSPCC say the poll shows there is now overwhelming consensus from the public, civil society and MPs for much bolder action.

In December a joint committee of Lords and MPs called for a number of changes to the draft Online Safety Bill to better prevent child abuse.

They recommended introducing a ‘safety controller’ liable for failure repeated and systemic failings that result in significant risk of serious harm and for a clear legal responsibility on firms to work together to stop harm and abuse that spreads quickly across their platforms.

And in January, the DCMS Committee backed the NSPCC’s calls for companies to have to disrupt how offenders game social media design features to organise around material that facilitates abuse but doesn’t meet a criminal threshold, by law.

The process sees ‘tribute pages’ to known victims created by offenders, while algorithms and hashtags spread harmful content and accounts like wildfire to users seeking to abuse children.

The Petitions Committee also called for the Bill to be strengthened last month.

The NSPCC’s  detailed analysis of the draft Online Safety Bill and their assessment of whether legislation meets its tests to deliver for children is set out in the ‘Duty to Protect’ report