online child safety

Child cyber-bullying and abuse law to be pushed through despite Tory opposition

An amendment to the Digital Economy Bill designed to protect children online from cyber-bullying and abuse is set to be enshrined in law after the Government was defeated in the Lords.

Peers voted by 203 to 176, a majority of 27, for a Labour-led amendment to the Bill requiring ministers to draw up a code of practice for social media companies.

The code would set out an “overarching duty of care” to ensure the safety of young people and oblige companies to immediately remove unlawful material.

For the Opposition, Baroness Jones of Whitchurch said action was long overdue to ensure that social media companies such as Facebook took seriously their responsibilities to prevent cyber-bullying and abuse.

She said all the statistics were going “in the wrong direction”, with rises in reported cases where children had been frightened, bullied or coerced.

“We have left it to the social media companies to change their behaviour on a voluntary basis for far too long,” she told peers.

Culture, media and sport minister Lord Ashton of Hyde urged peers not to pre-judge the outcome of discussions with the industry being held over the coming weeks.

He said threatening and abusive behaviour was “totally unacceptable” online or offline and ministers aimed to make the UK the safest place in the world to go online through the internet safety strategy.

Talks with experts and social media companies about internet safety were due later this month to identify what gaps there were in the law and a Government green paper would be published in June.

Lord Ashton said ministers did not rule out including a code of practice in their proposals but time was needed for talks on a comprehensive approach to tackle the problem.

In January, Facebook made efforts to counter attempts by German authorities to force it to more heavily regulate its social network by saying it will do more to combat fake news and hate speech. 

Meanwhile a committee of peers has recommended that children should be taught about the internet in school and that it should be prioritised alongside the traditional ‘three Rs’: reading, writing and arithmetic.

The House of Lords Communications Committee also said a new internet tsar - the children’s digital champion - should be appointed to co-ordinate action across government and stand up to the industry, the cross-party panel said.

Setting out its call for “digital literacy” to form a key part of the curriculum, the peers said “online responsibilities, social norms and risks” should be included in mandatory, Ofsted-inspected personal, social, health and economic (PSHE) lessons.

The committee’s report said: “It is no longer sufficient to teach digital skills in specialist computer science classes to only some pupils.

“We recommend that digital literacy sit alongside reading, writing and mathematics as the fourth pillar of a child’s education and that no child should leave school without a well-rounded understanding of the digital world.”

The report said internet companies should face new legal requirements on measures to protect children if necessary.

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