The Children’s Commissioner gives evidence to the Online Safety Bill Committee
24 May 2022 03:20 PM
Yesterday morning I appeared before the Public Committee on the Online Safety Bill. Ahead of my evidence to the Committee, I wanted to outline my concerns and aspirations for this pioneering piece of legislation.
Today’s children are born into a digital world which they did not create, and over which they have little control. Think just how many of us use the internet, every day, and now reflect on the fact that it’s estimated that one in three internet users is a child. Now, we are happy to acknowledge the online world presents enormous opportunities for fun, connection and education – as children often tell me:
“Social media has helped me more than my own family. I wouldn’t be in a happy relationship without social media. I wouldn’t have half of my friends without social media” – Non-binary child, 17.
However, the safeguards that are second nature in the “offline” world – i.e. protection from predators, abuse and inappropriate content like violence, self-harm promotion and pornography – often do not extend into the online world. This is true of large, mainstream social networking platforms (“Category 1” services under regulation) and smaller sites too.
“Everyday I see so much content that is explicit, and I try to report it but it never gets taken down” – Girl, 16
“Just a few days ago some person pretended to be one of my friends online and started saying rude stuff” – Girl, 12
For many years, children have also had their privacy and data exploited by tech firms, which have used profiling techniques to monetise on children’s lives.
The Government has been bold in laying this legislation and I applaud its ambition. I truly believe that regulation like the ICO’s Children’s Code and the Online Safety Bill will drive culture change, forcing platforms to put children’s safety and wellbeing ahead of profit.
I had a number of reservations about the Government’s first draft of the Bill, not least:
- The omission of some pornography sites
- Ambiguity around the role of age assurance in platforms’ safety duties
- No specific criminal offence relating to ‘cyberflashing’
I was glad to see these issues addressed in the subsequent re-draft and I welcomed the improvements. It’s true to say I am keen to see the Bill go further in elevating children’s voices, fully reflecting their needs and experiences. For example, I worry about the lack of a specific complaints’ mechanism (a children’s “digital ombudsman”). Children also tell me that online abuse is often perpetrated across multiple platforms:
“A girl and a boy in the year above … something happened. Her picture was placed all over social media, on a really popular Instagram page that has millions of followers. I didn’t see the boys face anywhere but the girl, her face was plastered everywhere … Snapchat, Instagram” – Girl, 17
I would like to see the Bill effectively address cross-platform abuse like this, with a duty on platforms to share information and work together to take down harmful and abusive material.
Throughout the progress of the Bill I will be reflecting children’s voices and opinions on these matters, as well as those of parents. I will also be working with schools to ensure that children feel engaged in the legislative process and understand that their voices matter.
I look forward to the first step in this work, in representing children’s views at the Public Bill Committee this morning.