The family of Molly Russell has welcomed the government’s Online Harms White Paper launched today but warned that the proposed independent regulator must be given sufficient powers to be effective at making the internet a safer place for young people. 

The joint proposal from the Home Office and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport proposes to create an independent regulator that has the power to fine companies that break the rules and may also be able to hold senior managers to account for breaches of the regulations.

The White Paper covers a wide range of online harms including terrorism and child sexual exploitation, as well as content relating to self-harm and suicide is included.

The danger of content promoting self-harm and suicide on the internet was brought into sharp focus following the death of 14-year-old Molly. Following her death her family learnt that Molly was accessing material online and on social media platform linked to anxiety, depression, self-harm and suicide which they believe contributed to her state of mind and her death. Since then they have campaigned for better protection for young people online.

Molly’s father Ian Russell, said in response to the White Paper:

"The era of self-regulation has allowed harmful content to become all too easily available online, with tragic consequences and so I welcome the White Paper published today and I am pleased to see the government finally putting into action its promises to hold tech companies and social media platforms to account by introducing an independent regulator.

“I am glad that content promoting self-harm and suicide, which is prevalent on the internet can have a detrimental impact on mental health, is being considered alongside the well-established online dangers such as terrorism and child sexual exploitation. A light has been shone on this hidden and harmful part of the internet and it is important that the government works with the tech companies and relevant organisations to remove harmful content and to continue to raise awareness among young people through better education of the dangers online and to promote the support available.

“Sadly, we have already seen that the tech companies seem to be slow to act in removing content so a clear process of escalating a complaint in such cases should be established and any complaints function, whether industry or regulatory, should be effective and easy to access. It is vital that the regulator has sufficient powers to uphold public confidence and it should be able to impose stringent civil fines, serve notices to companies and publish public notices if it is to fulfil its role.

"During the 12-week consultation period, the impetus must be maintained if the ambition set out in this White Paper is to be turned into effective legislation which will allow the online regulator to ensure the internet will become a safer place for all.”

Merry Varney, solicitor from Leigh Day representing the Russell family in relation to Molly’s inquest, added:

“As the White Paper confirms, there is considerable support for better protection of children and young people online from parents and children themselves. Molly’s story, as well as those told by other families who have lost their children through suicide, has highlighted not only the amount of wholly inappropriate content on many online platforms, including Instagram and Pinterest, but also how such content is being promoted to children and young people.

“The White Paper covers vastly different areas of online harm and it is imperative that while protecting freedom of expression, sufficient focus is given to the experience of children who are a key market for many tech companies. Society widely accepts restrictions on freedom of expression based on age, with films for example being independently assessed for an age suitability rating. It is therefore disappointing not to see stronger proposals to prevent children accessing and receiving material which would undoubtedly be classified as for adults only if broadcast in another way. Such measures appear only to apply to commercial online pornography sites, ignoring other types of material widely considered equally inappropriate for children to view.”