Europe

UK to criminalise encouraging self-harm online with fines for tech firms

Britain’s government intends to make it illegal to encourage others to harm themselves online and social media companies that fail to remove such material could face fines.

As part of a revamp of the Online Safety Bill, that’s due to return to Parliament early in December, lawmakers now want social media firms to block a wider range of content.

‘Social media firms can no longer remain silent bystanders … and they’ll face fines for allowing this abusive and destructive behaviour to continue on their platforms under our laws,’ said Digital Secretary Michelle Donelan.

Donelan said the update would create a new offence that would target communications that encourage someone to physically harm themselves, making it illegal to do so, and bringing it in line with communications that encourage suicide – which are already illegal.

‘I am determined that the abhorrent trolls encouraging the young and vulnerable to self-harm are brought to justice,’ said Donelan.

‘So I am strengthening our online safety laws to make sure these vile acts are stamped out and the perpetrators face jail time.’

Under the proposals, social media companies will have to remove and limit users’ exposure to material that deliberately encourages people to harm themselves.

Full details of the latest proposals – including the criminal penalties faced by people who promote self-harm, and the scale of fines faced by companies – will come next month when legislative amendments are put before parliament.

The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) said the changes to the Online Safety Bill had been influenced by the case of Molly Russell, the 14-year-old who ended her own life in November 2017 after viewing social media content linked to depression, self-harm and suicide.

In September, a coroner investigating Russell’s death ruled that social media platforms contributed to her taking her own life.

Blame for the death of the schoolgirl was laid squarely at the door of social media companies whose algorithms fed her ‘romanticised acts of self-harm by young people’.

Last week the government said the new legislation would also ban the distribution of ‘downblouse’ and porn ‘deepfakes’ without consent.

It’s fantastic to see the Government has heeded our calls to criminalise encouraging self-harm online,’ said Julie Bentley, CEO of Samaritans.

‘However, tackling illegal suicide and self-harm content in the Online Safety Bill is only half the job. It’s vital that dangerous content that is still legal but incredibly harmful is regulated through the law and keeps people of all ages protected,’

According to recent research by Samaritans, three-quarters of people sampled had harmed themselves more severely because of viewing self-harm content online.

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