Ministers’ ambitions have been scaled back but their bill must protect children robustly
What happened to Molly Russell, who took her own life aged 14, was a tragedy. Everything possible must be done to prevent similar events in the future. Molly’s death was linked by a coroner to internet use after she was shown in a London court to have been deluged with algorithmically driven self-harm material. On the principle that this was wrong, and that social media companies must take more responsibility for what happens on their platforms, there is a good deal of agreement across party lines in parliament as well as among the public.
But beyond such painful case studies, and some generalisations drawn from them, consensus starts to break down. Legislating to fix the many problems created or exacerbated by social media is difficult. Digital technologies move fast and unpredictably. So far, societies and governments have not succeeded in restricting their harmful and destructive uses, while harnessing creative and productive ones. The UK’s online safety bill, which returns to the House of Commons on Tuesday, has already been several years in the making, and further changes are needed before it becomes law. Even then, no one should imagine that this is a job done. Instead, the bill should be viewed as an awkward step on an arduous journey.