UK expands online safety law to criminalize encouragement of self-harm

UK expands online safety law to criminalize encouragement of self-harm

The UK government has said it will further broaden the scope of online safety legislation by criminalizing the encouragement of self-harm, in a bid to tackle what it describes as ‘tragic and avoidable deaths caused by people viewing self-harm content online’.

The latest amendment to the controversial but populist online safety bill will mean affected platforms will have to remove content that deliberately encourages someone to physically harm themselves or risk penalties under the legislation.

People who post such content online could also face prosecution under the new offense of encouraging self-harm, and the digital state secretary has said the government wants to target “unsavory trolls who encourage the young and vulnerable to self-harm “.

The government has said that maximum penalties will be set in due course.

It is already illegal to encourage or witness suicide, online or offline, in the UK, so the creation of the new offense is intended to bring self-harm content into line with an existing ban on communications encouraging suicide.

Passing the online safety bill in parliament remains suspended after a break this summer linked to political unrest in the ruling Conservative Party. But the new UK government has said it will take the bill back to parliament next month after making changes to the legislation.

Just last week the Ministry of Justice announced some upcoming additions to the online safety bill, focused on tackling the abuse of intimate images. However, further changes are expected around the “legal but harmful” content, so the full form of the legislation remains to be confirmed.

The latest changes – which make it illegal to send online communications encouraging self-harm – come just months after the government said it would address concerns about the bill’s impact on online freedom of expression, with the (new ) secretary of state, Michelle Donelan, saying she would “amend” the bill in September to reduce concern about its impact on “legal but harmful” speech for adults.

Child safety groups, who have been campaigning for years for the government to pass online safety legislation, have since expressed concern over the bill’s watering down, hence the government’s move to make encouragement of self-harm a crime seems set to address that concern.

The BBC reported yesterday that Donelan said the latest changes were influenced by the case of Molly Russell: the 14-year-old student who took her own life five years ago after viewing thousands of online content about self-harm and suicide on platforms including Instagram and Pinterest.

An inquest into Russell’s death concluded in September that social media had been a factor in his disappearance. Last month, the coroner’s ‘prevention of future deaths’ report recommended a number of steps be taken to regulate and monitor minors’ access to social media content.

The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport said the move to add an encouragement offense to self-harm will make it illegal “one of the most worrying and pervasive online harms currently falling below the criminal behavior threshold “.

In a statement, Donelan added:

“I am determined that the abominable trolls who encourage the young and vulnerable to self-harm be brought to justice.

“So I’m strengthening our online safety laws to make sure these vile acts are cracked down and the perpetrators go to jail.

“Even social media companies can no longer remain silent bystanders and will face fines for allowing this abusive and destructive behavior to continue on their platforms under our laws.”

Other priority illegal offenses already listed in the bill include hate crimes; provisions regarding revenge porn (and the sharing of deepfake porn without content); harassment and cyberstalking.

Following the coroner’s report into Russell’s death, Donelan said child safeguarding measures would be strengthened as part of the changes made to the bill. Thus, by making encouragement of self-harm illegal, the government will – on paper – remove that particular type of problematic content from the ‘legal but harmful’ bucket, which could make it easier for ministers to reduce the level of regulation applied to this type of speech without being accused of undermining essential child protection provisions.

However, regardless of what the bill says on paper, huge questions remain about how platforms will respond to the legal obligations placed on them to regulate all types of speech and whether it will increase security for web users as claimed.

Meanwhile, serious concerns remain over freedom of expression over a regime with sanctions that raise up to 10% of global annual revenue – and even the risk of jail time for uncooperative senior executives – with critics concerned it will have a deterrent effect by setting up platforms as de facto vocal police and encouraging them to excessively block content to reduce the legal risk of a hefty fine.

Since the controversial speech regulation legislation was published in full last year, kicking off more than a year of parliamentary scrutiny, the government’s approach has faced much criticism and concerns from within parliament that the bill The law falls short of its stated goals and claims, even as mainstream child safety groups and activists (and a majority of lawmakers on both sides of the house) continue to lobby for online safety legislation to be passed.

Outside parliament, rights campaigners, legal and technical experts are among those who continue to warn of a looming mess that they say will impose the biggest fines on UK web users faced with access restrictions like age-verification pop-ups and homegrown startups facing incredibly confusing demands and costly compliance costs, with many also arguing that the bill won’t do what it claims, and it won’t even protect children.

The tug of war between the controversy over the government’s whole approach and strong populist support for the child safety claims attached to the bill has not reduced ministers’ stated commitment to passing the legislation – despite the rebooted UK government expressing some qualms about freedom of expression – but it remains to be seen to what extent it will rethink the regulation of “legal but harmful” speech.

The bill is due to return to parliament on Monday 5 December.

Another growing controversy attached to the bill concerns the potentially disastrous impact on messaging apps’ use of end-to-end encryption, as another recent government amendment requires private messaging apps to be able to detect and remove Child Sexual Exploitation and Abuse (CSEA) in both public and private communications between users which raises questions about how they can do this if they have implemented E2EE on the service and, therefore, what legislation will do to the strong security that exists to protect all users?

Last week a legal opinion written by a leading UK lawyer, commissioned by the free speech campaign group Index on Censorship, also questioned whether the bill is compatible with the human rights obligations of the United Kingdom, warning of the extent of the proposed surveillance of app user communications being imposed on the private sector by a government-appointed regulatory body and without independent oversight.

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