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Wednesday, February 1, 2023

Encouraging self-harm to be made a crime in bid to tackle ‘abhorrent trolls’

People who encourage people to self-harm online will be criminalised under changes to the delayed Online Safety Bill.

The latest planned changes to the controversial bill, which has seen revisions under three Prime Ministers, will make it a crime to use any communications, such as texts or social media posts, to encourage someone to physically harm themselves.

The amendment to the bill, due to be scrutinised by Parliament in December, would bring provisions on self-harm in line with the current law on encouraging someone to die by suicide.

The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) said the changes are influenced by the death of Molly Russell, the 14-year-old who died by suicide in November 2017 after viewing social media content about depression, self-harm and suicide.

The changes will mean social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter will be required to remove posts which encourage self-harm, and those responsible for it will face prosecution.

Culture Secretary Michelle Donelan said: “I am determined that the abhorrent trolls encouraging the young and vulnerable to self-harm are brought to justice.

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

“Social media firms can no longer remain silent bystanders either and they’ll face fines for allowing this abusive and destructive behaviour to continue on their platforms under our laws.”

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The bill has seen several delays and revisions amid the resignations of Liz Truss and Boris Johnson, with the three administrations taking differing views on policing online hatred and protecting free speech. Under Mr Sunak, the bill has seen changes to gut elements aimed at “legal but harmful” hate speech.

The DCMS declined to give an exact date for when the bill amendments would be tabled amid the quagmire that has seen the bill’s progress stalled.

But the NSPCC children’s charity welcomed the latest plans.

Child safety online policy manager Richard Collard said: “The tragic case of Molly Russell shows all too clearly the damage this type of material can cause.

“However, to keep children safe online we can’t afford to take a piecemeal approach and go down a route of naming new offences one by one.

“Instead, we need a broader, principled approach with tech companies having a duty of care for all young people using their platforms so they are not bombarded with a wide range of inappropriate and harmful content.

“We welcome Government recognising the need to take tough action when young people are exposed to dangerous content and to tighten laws to incentivise technology companies to protect children.

“We also need to see a culture of compliance and accountability from the technology firms that have allowed this type of content to spread like wildfire. This is why we need to see personal accountability measures in the Bill. There should be a named manager who is responsible and liable for organisational failures that lead to significant harm to children.”

Earlier this week, the Government announced other new offences being added to the bill that would crack down on the sharing of intimate images without consent.

The Government said more details on the maximum penalty for the offence will be published in due course.

Deputy Prime Minister and Justice Secretary Dominic Raab said: “Lives and families have been devastated by those who encourage vulnerable internet users to self-harm.

“Our changes will ensure the full force of the law applies to those callous and reckless individuals who try to manipulate the vulnerable online in this way.”

If you are struggling with suicidal thoughts, or are struggling with your mental health in other ways, you can contact Samaritans for free on 116 123 or email [email protected]

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