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Online harms bill criticised for omissions

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Written by: Emma Lunn
15/12/2020
Campaigners have expressed disappointment that the new bill doesn’t include online scams or dangerous electrical goods for sale on online marketplaces.

The government announced details of the online harms bill today. The bill will set out new guidelines governing the removal of illegal content such as child sexual abuse, terrorist material and media that promotes suicide.

Under the bill, the telecoms regulator Ofcom will gain the power to block access to online services that fail to do enough to protect children and other users. The watchdog would also be able to fine Facebook and other tech companies, and require them to publish an audit of efforts to tackle harmful posts.

The bill also requires social media platforms to stick to a new code of conduct that sets out their responsibilities towards children. Online misinformation is also included in the bill, specifically cases when content is legal but could cause significant physical or psychological harm to adults.

However, the bill doesn’t include online scams, or the sale of electrical goods online.

Conor D’Arcy, head of research and policy at the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute, said: “It is extremely disappointing that the draft bill fails to address one of the biggest online harms — the absolute devastation that scammers are causing for millions of people online, especially those with mental health problems

“Our research shows that nearly two million people fell victim to online scams in the six months after lockdown measures began in March. Overall, people with mental health problems are three times more likely to have lost out to scammers. That’s causing trauma and crippling money problems at a time when many people are already under huge financial and mental strain.”

The Money and Mental Health Policy Institute is urging the government to add online scams to the bill before it is introduced into parliament next year.

Meanwhile Electrical Safety First has criticised the fact the bill doesn’t cover online sales of electrical items.

Lesley Rudd, chief executive of Electrical Safety First, said: “We are deeply disappointed that the government’s online harms bill has failed to address the scourge of dangerous electrical items for sale via online marketplaces. The bill’s failure to finally make online marketplaces responsible for preventing the sale of potentially lethal electrical goods is a slap in the face to consumers.

“In the UK, illegal products which pose a serious risk to shoppers, continue to be sold on online marketplaces. The government must demonstrate that it takes this issue seriously by protecting consumers across the country with new laws to tackle this relentless issue.”

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