Prosecute tech chiefs who endanger children, says Molly Russell’s father

Ian Russell says inquest into daughter’s death is ‘unique’ opportunity to make online platforms safer

Molly Russell’s father has called for a stronger UK online safety bill, including criminal sanctions for tech executives who endanger children’s wellbeing, after criticising social media platforms’ responses to a coroner’s report on his daughter’s death.

Ian Russell said the inquest into the death of Molly, 14, was a “unique” opportunity for the tech industry and government to make online platforms safer. A coroner ruled in September that harmful online content contributed to the death of Molly, stating that she “died from an act of self-harm whilst suffering from depression and the negative effects of online content”.

Molly, from Harrow, north-west London, took her own life in 2017 after viewing content related to suicide, depression and self-harm on sites including Instagram and Pinterest.

Russell said the response of those companies to a set of recommendations from the senior coroner, which included considering separate platforms for adults and children, was “underwhelming and unsurprising.”

He said: “That’s not good enough when young lives are at risk.”

Russell said the responses from Pinterest, the owner of Snapchat, and Meta, Instagram’s parent, underlined the importance of the online safety bill, which receives a third reading in parliament on Tuesday.

“It points towards the online safety bill as a really important piece of legislation because I don’t think that without effective regulation the tech industry is going to put its house in order, to prevent tragedies like Molly’s from happening again,” he said.

After the inquest, the senior coroner, Andrew Walker, issued a prevention of future deaths notice. It recommended the government should review the provision of digital platforms to children and should look at: separate sites for children and adults; checking a user’s age before they sign up to a platform; providing age-appropriate content to children; the use of algorithms to provide content; advertising to children; and parental or guardian access to a child’s social media account.

The notice was also sent to Meta, Pinterest and Snap, who were required to respond with details of actions they would take in response, although the coroner’s recommendations are not binding. In their responses, the companies outlined their efforts to protect children from harmful content.

Pinterest’s response included a commitment to independent scrutiny of its moderation efforts, while Snap pointed to its recent establishment of a “family centre” that offers parents insight into who their children are friends with, while Meta outlined policies including a content control tool on Instagram that gives teen users the option of limiting the amount of sensitive material they see. Twitter, which was also used by Molly before her death, has also received a copy of the coroner’s notice but its response has yet to be published.

Russell said the responses gave “the feeling of business as usual” although Pinterest’s commitment to third-party monitoring of its efforts was a “positive” development. Russell, who has become a leading campaigner for internet safety and has established the Molly Rose Foundation to help young people with mental health issues, added that he was still finding unsafe content on platforms such as Instagram and TikTok.

Russell said he supported an amendment to the bill that would expose tech executives to criminal liability, and a jail sentence of up to two years, if they systematically fail to protect children on their platforms. Currently, the act threatens executives with jail only if they hinder investigations by Ofcom, the communications regulator that will oversee the act. Companies that breach the act could be fined 10% of global turnover, which would be more than $11bn (£9bn) in the case of Meta.

“The key to making change happen is changing corporate culture. To focus minds clearly at the top of these corporations the threat of stringent financial sanctions is not sufficient,” Russell said, adding: “The prospect of prosecution will focus minds.”

The culture secretary, Michelle Donelan, has said she is “not ruling out” backing the amendment, which has strong support among Conservative backbenchers and is backed by opposition parties including Labour.

In her response to the coroner’s notice, Donelan said the online safety bill had already been strengthened to provide greater protection for children including requiring large platforms to publish risk assessments of the threat posed by material on their services that is harmful to children.

The former Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith on Sunday urged Rishi Sunak to accept the amendment to ensure social media bosses “face punishment” for failures to protect children on their platforms.

“We’ve got all sorts of terrible, damaging nonsense on the internet, from suicide right the way through to extreme levels of pornography aimed at children, and general abuse,” he said.

“It is time we all coordinated together and made sure they don’t get away with this very lax system of actually protecting children.”

Responding to Russell’s comments, Pinterest said it was “committed to accelerating its ongoing improvements” to user safety and Snap said its family centre tool was designed to “foster safer online experiences in general”.

Meta declined to comment.


Dan Milmo Global technology editor

The GuardianTramp

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