Children’s Commissioner publishes a statutory Duty of Care for online service providers

Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner for England, has challenged Government Ministers to adopt her “powerful yet simple” proposals and create a statutory duty of care to all children who use online services.

Children who use these platforms are frequently exposed to harmful material and are at risk of online grooming.

Her proposals are driven by, in her view, the lack of legislative reaction to the tragic death of Molly Russell in 2017.

The change to the law would mean that online service providers would owe a duty to take “all reasonable and proportionate care to protect children from reasonably foreseeable harm.” The aim is to make online service providers accountable for the content available to young people, much like mainstream magazines and newspapers.

The Commissioner’s proposals are welcomed by the NSPCC commenting that “social networks have repeatedly shown they are incapable of regulating themselves and they need to be forced to protect children.”

Protecting children online is difficult; children can easily lie about their age to access platforms they are not old enough to use. This though, as the Commissioner suggests, should not absolve the tech companies from their duty. This higher level of accountability for online service providers is something that is being pushed for more and more in the media. For example, the sporting community has recently called for higher levels of account verification in an effort to combat online racism against players.

Fines are a likely form of retribution though the Commissioner argues that companies should be made to publically admit when they have failed to protect a child. They should be required to inform their users of the breach and publish details of the complaint, fine, and remedial action they are taking.

Whilst attitudes are changing and society is becoming more aware of the dangers social media poses, technology is developing at a much faster rate than the law can. We previously wrote about the Online Harms White Paper, the consultation to which has now closed. The White Paper sets out the Government’s proposals to make the UK the safest country in the world to be online.

It is clear that social media providers need to be more transparent and take responsibility for the content that is displayed on their platforms. The internet plays a huge role in children’s lives and it is evident that more needs to be done to strike a balance between online safety and allowing children to benefit from the digital revolution.

Sophie Cottam, Paralegal, BLM

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