The government has been criticised for endangering children by failing to pass its online safety bill, after it confirmed that the change of prime minister had caused yet another delay to the proposed legislation.
With no known date for when the bill will return to the Commons, internet safety groups warned that any further delay would continue to place children at risk.
“Each day this crucial legislation is delayed is another day imagery of children being sexually abused spreads further online. This is the reality,” said Susie Hargreaves, the chief executive of the Internet Watch Foundation, which works with police and social media platforms to keep child abuse imagery offline.
“Our hotline analysts see the consequences, and last year they removed more images and videos of children suffering sexual abuse and rape from the internet than ever before.
“We need to see a clear timetable of when this bill will proceed, to give victims the confidence that this bill is still a government priority. Law enforcement, tech businesses and charities are working hard to keep the internet safe, but they need certainty. Delaying the passage of this bill would undermine that.”
The bill was due to return to the Commons next week, but has been withdrawn from the parliamentary schedule because of the chaos surrounding the resignation of Liz Truss as prime minister. It had previously been planned for late summer, but was then delayed to the autumn as a result of the chaos surrounding the resignation of Boris Johnson as prime minister.
Labour’s Lucy Powell, the shadow secretary of state for digital, culture, media and sport (DCMS), condemned the delay. “It is disgraceful that one of the first acts of Rishi Sunak’s government is to, yet again, pull the online safety bill.
“In the wake of Molly Russell’s inquest, the need for urgent regulation has never been clearer, yet, unbelievably, this government can’t decide if it wants to keep children safe online. This bill must not be the victim of another grubby, backroom deal by the new PM.
“Last week, Labour offered to work with the new culture secretary, to get the final stages of this bill done. An offer she accepted. Every week that passes costs lives and takes a huge toll on those affected by abuse, trolling, scamming and algorithms encouraging self-harm and suicide.”
Originally called the “online harms bill”, the legislation’s roots go back one prime minister further, to Theresa May, and was conceived when Matt Hancock was DCMS secretary. In the five years since then, it has been shaped and reshaped to become what the cybersecurity expert Ross Anderson has called a “sprawling legislative monster”.
However, not everyone was upset over the delay. Jim Killock, the executive director of the privacy campaigning organisation the Open Rights Group, said the delay was an opportunity for a “complete rethink”.
“This bill threatens 40 million users of WhatsApp and other messengers with constant surveillance of their private messages,” Killock added. “It will create a culture of everyday censorship that will disproportionately remove content from vulnerable, disadvantaged, and minority communities while claiming to protect them.”