A children’s charity has called on the UK Government to accelerate the delivery of a bill aimed at protecting children from online grooming.
The NSPCC has urged Boris Johnson to deliver an Online Harms Bill that sets a duty of care on tech companies within 18-months.
The charity also insisted that, as a matter of urgency, the UK Government publish a roadmap to establish a timescale for the bill to go through parliament.
In February this year the former Digital Minister Matt Warman agreed to publish an Online Harms Bill following a series of proposals laid out in a white paper, the NSPCC said.
Proposals laid out in the paper would see the independent regulation of social networks, as well as potential criminal sanctions if company directors failed to protect children.
However, frustrations have grown over delays to the legislation, which is now not expected till the end of the year. The charity is also concerned that a proposed regulator may not be established until 2023.
Peter Wanless, chief executive at the NSPCC insisted that “now is the time to get regulation done” and establish a watchdog “with the teeth” to hold tech giants to account.
“Child abuse is an inconvenient truth for tech bosses who have failed to make their sites safe and enabled offenders to use them as a playground in which to groom our kids,” he said.
“Last week the Prime Minister signalled to me his determination to stand up to Silicon Valley and make the UK the world leader in online safety. He can do this by committing to an Online Harms Bill that puts a legal duty of care on big tech to proactively identify and manage safety risks,” Wanless added.
This call to action follows the publication of figures highlighting the extent of child grooming on social media sites.
Data published by the NSPCC shows that police in England and Wales have recorded more than 10,000 offences of sexual communication with a child in the past two and a half years.
Social media is playing a key role in enabling offenders, NSPCC data also shows.
In cases where the method was recorded, Facebook-owned apps, including Facebook Messenger, Instagram and WhatsApp, were used in more than half (55%) of online grooming offences between April 2017 to October 2019.
In total, police in England and Wales recorded over 3,200 instances of Facebook-owned apps being used, with half of these involving Instagram.
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Snapchat was also used over 1,060 times, the NSPCC noted.
In Scotland, NSPCC figures show that instances of sexual communication with children have rise by more than 80% in the space of five years.
651 offences were recorded by Police Scotland between 2019 and 2020, the NSPCC revealed. Compared to the 354 recorded crimes in 2014-15, this marks a total increase of 84%.
The charity warned that there could be a “sharper increase” this year due to the “unique threats” caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Combined with what the NSPCC described as “several years of alleged industry failure” to implement basic child protection, the Covid-19 pandemic could exacerbate the issue.