Internet regulation is needed but the Government must commit to protecting young people online.
The internet forms an integral part of people’s lives. In the UK, 99% of 12 to 15–year–olds are online. With social life, entertainment and online shopping all accessed via the internet, being online has become crucial. With the COVID-19 lockdown, even more aspects of young people’s lives have moved online, including school work. The pandemic has changed the way we use the internet, with OFCOM reporting that people are now spending a quarter of their day online.
This increase in internet use over the years and during the pandemic has unfortunately also led to an increase in negative issues related to the online environment. Almost 50% of adults report having seen hateful content online and two-thirds say they are worried about online content. The Online Harms Bill, first unveiled in 2019, is an attempt to tackle the issues that arise from internet usage. The Bill is a response to an incident where a 14-year-old teenager killed herself after viewing a ‘stream of negative material on Instagram’. Following the incident, there were calls for more regulations and technology companies to take increased responsibility for harmful content online. The Bill was still in its proposal (White Paper) stage in June last year.
At JAN Trust, we are aware of the issues that can arise from the internet: from hate crime online, disinformation, cyberbullying, child sexual exploitation, the streaming of events such as the New Zealand Christchurch shooting, to the dissemination of terrorist and gang content online.
In 2010, JAN Trust set up Web Guardians™, a programme which aimed at tackling the issue of extremist content. Our programme aims at working with and educating mothers to protect their children and loved ones from radicalisation and gang grooming online. We have placed women at the centre of solution against issues faced by vulnerable communities.
So far, Web Guardians™ has worked to help families with self-regulation. The Online Harms Bill attempts to provide additional protections for young people using the internet by asking technology companies such as Facebook, Instagram and YouTube to take more responsibility in regulating the content on their platforms.
Online Harms Bill
The Government originally set its intentions for more online regulations in 2017 and published a proposal for the bill in 2019. The proposal put forward plans for a ‘system of accountability and oversight for tech companies’. This included creating a framework that makes it clear what companies’ responsibilities are in protecting British adult and children Internet users. The proposal includes sanctions, such as fines. Internet service providers would also be able to block offenders by removing them from search results or even sanctioning senior management of different tech companies.
A response on the proposal was published at the end of last year, but the bill might only come into effect in 2024. Unfortunately, a rise in hate crime online, racism and disinformation – particularly about COVID-19 this year – has pointed to an alarming need for immediate solutions to online harms.
The pandemic has increased the need for young people and adults to be online. As a result, whilst the bill seems promising, the timeline is worrying.
At JAN Trust, we consider the issue of online harm very important to our community. In 2012, we published a report on ‘Internet Extremism: Working Towards a Community Solution’, which highlighted the need for education of the internet and the dangers and what can be done to protect young people online.
We are particularly concerned as we know that many parents, especially BAME mothers, who we work with, have never used a computer or tablet before attending our Web Guardians™ workshops. We know that their children are using the internet and are being exposed to harmful content with no parental guidance.
We have worked on tackling online harms for over ten years. We believe that online regulation is necessary to protect internet users, especially those who are not aware of its dangers to their children. Whilst the Online Harms Bill cannot single-handedly resolve all the issues that arise from the internet usage, it is important that those that profit from it – technology companies – keep users safe from harmful content. The Government must demonstrate its commitment to protecting our young people by making sure the Bill comes into effect as soon as possible.