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Online Safety Bill: Protecting people online

As part of Samaritans’ campaign for a kinder, safer internet we want to protect anyone who’s being encouraged to harm themselves online. But what does this look like in reality?

Mubeen Bhutta, Head of Policy, Public Affairs and Campaigns explains in more detail below.

“The Online Safety Bill is the UK Government’s vehicle to achieve their vision for the UK to be the safest place to be online. The Bill is currently making its way through Parliament. 

“This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make the internet a kinder, safer place. We know that the internet can be an invaluable source of support, hosting helpful resources and content detailing people’s recovery stories. However, we also know that the internet can host harmful suicide and self-harm content that can exacerbate suicidal feelings. 

“The Bill will create a new online safety regime which will break new ground, centred around the principle that what is illegal offline should also be illegal online. But with a huge number of potential harms, the Government has decided to focus the Bill on some priority areas and we’re really pleased it has confirmed that tackling online content which encourages or assists suicide has been prioritised in the Bill – reflecting the illegality of this offline. 

“But this doesn’t, on its own, do enough.

“One of the changes that we’d like to see made to the Bill as it goes through parliament is for it to include a new offence of encouraging or assisting serious self-harm with malicious intent. Last year, the Law Commission for England and Wales reviewed malicious communications legislation and concluded that there is a gap in the law when it comes to encouraging self-harm. We want to see this gap closed, in order to protect people from those that deliberately seek to encourage someone to harm themselves. And we think the new Online Safety Bill provides an important opportunity to achieve this

“Self-harm is a sign of serious emotional distress and whilst most people who self-harm will not go on to take their own life, it is a strong risk factor for future suicide. For many, non-suicidal self-harm can be used as a way of coping with difficult or distressing feelings and circumstances and whilst this isn’t a healthy long-term coping strategy, it is crucial that people are able to talk about self-harm online, to make connections with other people safely, get support and reduce the stigma that is all too widespread.

“That’s why we’re focused on ensuring that a new offence for encouraging or assisting self-harm is focused on those people who are maliciously and intentionally encouraging people to harm themselves. This means ensuring that the law has a high threshold of harm and is really clear about defining the intent behind what someone has said online. We would also like the additional safeguard that any decision to take action against someone would be considered case-by-case by the Director of Public Prosecutions to make sure pursuing it is genuinely in the public interest.

“Regulating the internet, and reducing harmful content whilst preserving safe supportive online content about suicide and self-harm is complex but crucial. Failure to address this properly and recognise the nuances without shying away from the problem is critical. Without doing this, the Government will fall short of their own aim to make the UK the safest place to be online. We must maximise this opportunity before us and make the internet safer for everyone.”