Five families who have lost children to online harms are backing a law change to force tech companies to release information after similar tragedies.
The families, including Ian Russell, whose daughter Molly took her own life at 14, are backing an amendment to the Online Safety Bill proposed by the crossbench peer Baroness Kidron. The bill returns to the Commons today after being changed by the government to address freedom of speech concerns.
The Russell family fought for years to get information about Molly’s social media accounts. A coroner ruled that the posts she viewed had contributed to her death. Ian Russell criticised WhatsApp’s owner, Meta, after it deleted Molly’s account. There was a long legal battle to get her full Instagram content, which was never handed over.
They are joined by the parents of Frankie Thomas, 15, who took her own life after using the Wattpad app on school equipment to view graphic content about suicide and self-harm. The family of Olly Stephens, 13, is supporting the amendment after he was stabbed to death in a social media feud.
Ruth Moss, whose daughter Sophie Parkinson took her own life at 13 after viewing suicide-related material online, and Lorin LaFave, whose son Breck Bednar, 14, was groomed and murdered by an online predator are joining the campaign. The proposed law would give Ofcom, the media regulator, the duty and power to get from a tech company information that would be relevant to a child’s death.
It also puts a duty on the companies to co-operate with families and coroners and provide relevant material in good time or be fined 10 per cent of their worldwide revenue. The material could be any content that the child viewed or engaged with and details of the algorithms that played a part in that process. Third parties would have to be redacted from any data to protect their privacy.
Kidron, a film director who founded the 5Rights organisation, said: “These families suffer agony trying to uncover what their children were looking at in the days and weeks leading up to their deaths, and how much of the material was recommended to them through the algorithms used by tech companies to maximise profits.
“We need to end the tech sector’s tactics of obfuscation and create a transparent, independent process for all to avoid further tragedies of this kind.
“These amendments would create a swift, humane route for families and coroners to access data. For the sake of bereaved families now and in the future, I urge the government to adopt them. Denying them this right is simply inhumane.”
The amendments have previously been supported by 37 charities, including the NSPCC, Barnardo’s and Save the Children. Some of the charities would be added to the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 to ensure that the powers were “relevant to and sufficient for the online world”.
There is no legal requirement for tech firms to hand over data without a court order. The companies usually argue that they must follow data protection or privacy laws.
The coroner in the Russell inquest is also hearing the case of Mia Janin, 14, who is believed to have taken her life after receiving messages on social media. Her father has also struggled to get more information about what his daughter saw on her phone before she died.
Kidron’s amendment, which will be added when the bill is passed to the Lords next month, has cross-party support. Although ministers are thought to back the thrust of the amendments, it is not clear whether the bill will be the vehicle for them.
Baroness Morgan of Cotes, the former Tory education secretary, said: “Losing a child is every parent’s worst nightmare but to then have to fight for years against intransigent tech platforms just to find out the type of content which was being accessed can only add to the trauma. I am delighted to support Baroness Kidron’s amendments.”TIOB News