Catch up time

MaggieJones2014.JPGMaggie Jones on the need for a statutory Code of Practice in the UK against online abuse and bullying

Today in the Lords on the latest day of Report on the Digital Economy Bill, Labour Peers will continue to lead the debate to strengthen child protection laws as they relate to the internet and social media.

While the government is already making helpful moves to stop under 18s viewing adult material on the Internet, controversy rumbles on over both the definition of prohibited content and the regulations of access. We will encourage Ministers to work with other parties and the sector to resolve such issues in a way that has the most meaningful impact. And to perhaps learn from the progress we have made together on ensuring sex and relationship education will be compulsory in all secondary schools.

One other issue arising however, is my amendment for a statutory Code of Practice that obliges all social media sites to put into place mechanisms to prevent children from online abuse. In the context of the Bill, the amendment specifically focuses on protecting young people but would clearly benefit adults suffering similar attacks. To be established within six months of the Bill receiving Royal Assent, the Code would require terms of use to prevent cyber-bullying, along with the immediate removal of illegal posts and information given to the police.

The charity Childnet has reported that one in four teenagers suffered online hate incidents last year, while the NSPCC suggests two thirds of young people want social media sites to do more to protect them. Girlguiding revealed in its survey that 20% of girls had unwanted pornographic films or images sent to them without consent. And the bombardment of sexualised images is creating huge body confidence issues and normalising sexist behaviour in schools.

At present, there is no culture of safeguarding children’s online safety and wellbeing. Anyone doubting this just needs to reflect on the example of Facebook. On being informed by the BBC that obscene images of children were being posted on its site, the social media giant failed to remove the vast majority of posts – and then reported the BBC to the police for sending on other examples.

At the Committee stage of the Bill, the Lords Minister rather complacently argued that a statutory Code was not necessary, telling peers that the onus should be on companies to develop their own in-house processes. Shortly afterwards, the Secretary of State decided that this was not good enough and that a new Internet Safety Strategy would be launched – with a green paper promised for the summer.

Anyone worried that these global companies are difficult to regulate should consider the system in Australia. It has already passed the Enhancing Online Safety for Children Act 2015, requiring all social media sites to have terms of use to prohibit cyber-bullying and abuse; and established a Children’s e-safety Commissioner. Given that we’re discussing how the same social media sites operate here in the UK, it’s surely time to play catch up and give our young people the reassurances they deserve.

Baroness Maggie Jones of Whitchurch is a Shadow Minister and a member of Labour’s frontbench in the House of Lords. She tweets @WhitchurchGirl

Published 20th March 2017

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