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Government says new online harms legislation is expected to be ready next year

MPs have called for guarantees on funding to make the internet a safer place as the Government says new online harms legislation is expected to be ready next year.

Speaking during a Westminster Hall debate on online harms yesterday (October 8), Digital Minister Caroline Dinenage said a full Government response will be published in the next few weeks, with legislation expected to be ready early next year.

Ms Dinenage said the welfare of children is central to the Government’s approach on tackling online harms. She told MPs increases in instances of “revenge porn” as recorded by the UK Safer Internet Centre UK SIC), are “unacceptable” and need to be addressed.

She said: “Issues such as revenge porn are rising. The UK Safer Internet Centre recently cited that this year the Revenge Porn Helpline has already dealt with 22% more cases than they saw in the whole of 2019. That is not acceptable.”

The UK SIC is a unique partnership of three world-leading charities (SWGfL, Childnet, and the Internet Watch Foundation) working together to deliver critical advice, resources, and interventions to help keep everyone, especially children and young people, safe online.

Opening the debate, Labour MP Holly Lynch (Halifax) says lawmakers must consider the social and psychological impact of social media.

Speaking during the debate, shadow digital minister Chi Onwurah called for the Government to replace EU funding for the UK SIC. She said tech has huge potential for good, and that people should be “empowered” to benefit from its positives.

Ms Onwurah said: “The internet is increasingly now a dark, challenging, and inhospitable place.”

She added: “Regulation has not kept pace with technology, crime, or consumers, leaving growing numbers of people increasingly exposed to significant online harm.”

Ms Onwurah said: “I consider myself a tech evangelist. I believe tech is an engine of progress like no other.”

She said, however that people need to be protected and empowered to control their online lives. She said she fears online abuse is being “normalized for an entire generation”.

Ms Onwurah told MPs schools “desperately” need help improving online safety, and called for the Government to replace the UK Safer Internet Centre’s European union funding so it can continue to “do its good work” as the UK leaves the EU.

Labour MP Chris Elmore (Ogmore), who chairs the APPG on Social Media, said he is concerned about the growing number of young people being coerced into sexual acts online.

He highlighted research conducted by the Internet Watch Foundation (part of the UK SIC) and called for online harms legislation to be accelerated.

Mr Elmore said: “The IWF now says that Europe is the grooming capital of the world. Mainly in the Netherlands, but it is on the increase in this country.”

He called for more resources to help remove URLS and said there is a “real fear among the tech community that young people are being taught how to abuse themselves by people who are grooming them.”

He called for the Online harms Bill to be brought forward as quickly as possible. He said: “It is robust and clear, and takes on the platforms.”

Tory former minister Maria Miller told MPs the “core concept” of the Government’s approach is of a “duty of care” on tech companies.

She said this is good, but only a starting point. She said setting up a regulator would not give a route of redress for victims. She told MPs Bill must have “teeth”.

Ms Miller said the law is “a mess” where image-based abuse is concerned.

She said: “We have layer upon layer of legislation that does not give the police the necessary tools to be able to protect people who are victims.”

She said the coronavirus lockdown has created the “perfect storm for online abuse”, and that the Government “has to act quickly”. She called for legislative reform on top of regulation.

Tory MP Fiona Bruce (Congleton), however, raised fears it could take until 2023 before online harms legislation is brought in.

She said children currently have had “unfettered access” to online pornography, and called for age verification to be brought in as soon as possible. 

Ms Bruce said Savanta ComRes polling has indicated that most adults think the Government should bring forward age verification controls on online pornography.