Online harms bill a “once in a generation opportunity”, says Labour

Elliot Chappell

Labour has declared that the upcoming online harms bill represents a “once in a generation opportunity to tackle the dangerous elements of the internet” that must not be wasted by the government.

Commenting today, with the government due to publish its response to the online harms white paper 18 months after it was first promised, Labour’s Jo Stevens has stressed the need for the government to take the issue seriously.

The party has argued the proposed regulator should be empowered to issue financial penalties if platforms fail to remove harmful disinformation, including social media companies and the dissemination of anti-vax conspiracies.

Labour has also said it wants to see senior company executives face criminal penalties where persistent breaches of the law take place.

Shadow Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Stevens said today: “The long-awaited online harms bill is a once in a generation opportunity to tackle these dangerous elements of the internet which have real-world consequences.

“We need the government to take this seriously whether it is hate speech, disinformation or self-harm content. The internet should be a safe place for everyone and this legislation must be ambitious in its scope.”

The party has stressed the need for the proposed legislation to introduce measures to tackle “currently legal but clearly harmful” content including such as that encouraging or showing people how to self-harm or commit suicide.

Labour has been working with Ian Russell, whose daughter Molly killed herself after viewing social media posts on Instagram about self-harm and then having similar content pushed to her by the social media platform’s algorithm.

The intervention from the shadow minister comes as Labour backbencher Margaret Hodge has demanded this weekend that the government ban online anonymity or make social media directors personally liable for defamatory posts.

Labour last month proposed the introduction of penalties to prevent the spread of anti-vax disinformation and called on government to work with the party on a cross-party basis on the online harms bill to “get that legislation on the statute book”.

The online harms bill was announced in 2019 following the death of Molly Russell but it remains in the preliminary, ‘white paper’ stage. The chair of the Lords democracy digital committee branded the delay “unacceptable” in June 2020.

The Office for National Statistics has reported that one in five British children have been bullied online and between April and October this year the NSPCC held more than 1,000 counselling sessions with young people about online bullying.

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