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Online Safety Bill: the ins and outs

Samaritans has made strengthening the Online Safety Bill one of its key campaigns to ensure no one is left unprotected from harmful content under the new law.

Julia Waltham, Head of Policy, Public Affairs and Campaigns explains in more detail below.

“The UK Government’s Online Safety Bill was finally presented to Parliament today following a pre-legislative scrutiny process that ended last year.

“The new Bill reflects some of the changes this process, and we at Samaritans, have called for. However, it still falls short of creating a legislative framework that will help ensure everyone is protected from harmful suicide and self-harm content everywhere online.

“A premise of the Bill is that what is illegal offline needs to be illegal online. This means that all platforms, no matter their reach or functionality, will be required to tackle illegal content. Having been urged to do so during the pre-legislative scrutiny process, the UK Government has updated the Bill so it clearly calls out several priority illegal offences, including the promotion of suicide.

“This is very welcome, because it means platforms will need to ensure users do not come across content that promotes suicide in the first place. But it is unclear what kind of content amounts to ‘promoting’ suicide in practice. Will all the suicide content we consider to be unequivocally harmful amount to ‘promoting’ suicide online? Will content containing detailed, instructive information about methods of suicide be caught? Can we also be confident that helpful suicide content won’t inadvertently be over-regulated?

“While these questions need answers, it’s likely there’ll be some harmful suicide content that doesn’t amount to an offence online – for example, content that positions suicide as a suitable way of overcoming adversity. Worryingly, when it comes to self-harm – a strong risk factor for suicide – there is no equivalent ‘promoting’ offence, so no self-harm content will be considered illegal and proactively tackled in the new regulatory regime.

“When it comes to this kind of ‘legal but harmful’ content, platforms will be expected to identify and mitigate the risk to children on their site. But when it comes to over-18s, only the most popular social media sites will need to do any risk assessments at all. ‘Smaller’ platforms with more limited reach and functionality, including forums that encourage suicide, will not even need to consider the risk of their harmful suicide or self-harm content to adult users, let alone how it will be dealt with. This includes self-harm content that provides instructions on how to hurt yourself, or that portrays self-harm as positive or desirable.

“Essentially, the Bill fails to acknowledge two things. Firstly, that vulnerability does not suddenly stop when someone turns 18. Suicidal feelings and behaviour affects people of all ages, and there is evidence that over-18s who have died by suicide visited websites that encouraged suicide or shared information about methods of harm. Secondly, a platform’s reach and functionality is not necessarily a vector for its risk. We know there are ‘smaller’ online spaces where users share information about methods of suicide. At least one has been highlighted by families and coroners as playing a role in the suicides of individuals in the UK.

“Sadly, the Bill is missing a huge opportunity to introduce greater regulation of harmful suicide and self-harm content on ‘smaller’ platforms. Going forward, it must clearly call out suicide and self-harm as priority categories of legal but harmful content and, in relation to over-18s, require all user-to-user platforms – not just the most popular – to at least carry out a risk assessment of its harmful suicide and self-harm content and state clearly in its terms and conditions how it will be dealt with.

“Ultimately though, it is priority illegal content that platforms need to put the most effort into minimising – and self-harm is notable by its absence. That’s why the UK Government must bring forward legislation creating a new offence of encouraging or assisting serious self-harm, as recommended by the Law Commission. Then, just as promoting suicide has been categorised as priority illegal content in the Online Safety Bill, the same must be done for self-harm, helping ensure users do not actually come across content that promotes it in the first place.

“UK Government is claiming the Online Safety Bill will make the UK the safest place to be in the world online. Yet its partial approach to protecting over-18s on so-called ‘smaller’ websites, including those that encourage suicide, completely undermines this claim, as well as undermining commitments elsewhere around suicide prevention. We all deserve to feel safe from harmful suicide and self-harm everywhere online and the Bill must go further.”