NSPCC welcomes criminal sanctions for firms that fail to keep children safe online

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In this week’s column I would like to discuss social media companies potentially facing criminal sanctions if they breach a legal duty of care in safeguarding our children online; sanctions proposed in the recent Government Online Harms white paper, writes Helen Westerman, NSPCC campaigns manager.

Tough sanctions that we at the NSPCC have been campaigning for since 2017, mustering under the banner that the wild west web of social media companies must be cleaned up and those not doing enough held to account.

Thanks to your support, our Wild West Web campaign prompted the government to announce - in its Online Harms White Paper - a hugely significant commitment, that once enacted, can make the UK a world pioneer in protecting children online.

Now we are in the consultation period, examining the pros and cons on various aspects of the proposed laws, including whether senior managers should be made liable for gross breaches and whether this should be criminal rather than civil liability.

The NSPCC believes it must be criminal and also that a new corporate offence should be created so that tech firms can be prosecuted for gross breaches in their duty of care to children.

A new survey on behalf of the NSPCC backs this stance. 73 per cent of adults surveyed in Yorkshire and Humberside agreed that named directors should face criminal sanctions for gross breaches of child safety and 76 per cent of those surveyed in our region agreed that social networks should face corporate prosecution for significant breaches.

Clearly the feeling is that tough sanctions are needed to ensure that responsibility to keep children safe is truly embedded in the boardrooms of tech firms. For too long these companies have been allowed to police themselves, have failed to prioritise children’s safety and left them exposed to grooming, abuse, and harmful content.

The safety of our children online is paramount and to ensure tech companies commit to best practise in safeguarding a new corporate offence is vital, along with the sanctions already committed to, including serving enforcement notices, publishing public failure notices and requiring tech firms to disclose information about the breach.

In the meantime, the best thing we, as parents, can do is to have regular conversations with our children about their online lives, much as we would about their day at school. This way, our children can feel confident in confiding in us anything that’s bothering them.

You can find more information about your child’s online world and the most popular apps/games at www.net-aware.org.uk or call the O2 NSPCC Online Safety advice line for free on 0808 800 5002.