This article was originally published in The Telegraph, 20/2/2023: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2023/02/19/let-bereaved-parents-access…
Molly was an intelligent, insightful, and empathetic teenager. She had a passion for performing arts, had settled well into secondary school and was flourishing academically. She was loved deeply by her family. But six years ago, Molly Russell took her own life.
The circumstances around her tragic death were uncertain, but her family hoped answers could be found in her social media accounts. However, instead of the truth, they faced five years of court appearances, constant campaigning and emotional turmoil trying to elicit information from global tech companies. Even after this ordeal, they only received a partial response. Last year, a Senior Coroner was finally able to conclude that what Molly had engaged with online had “contributed to her death.”
Sadly, this experience is not an isolated occurrence. The families of Frankie Thomas, Sophie Parkinson, Breck Bednar and Olly Stephens faced similar struggles. Many of these families have fought to access relevant material linked to the death of their child, but time and again they have been met with delays, obfuscation, and denial. As Ian Russell said about the companies involved, “They said the right words, they said fine things, but they never seemed to deliver.”
Imagine being a parent facing the devastating loss of your child from murder, accident or suicide and being met by an impenetrable silence about the circumstances that led to their death. This is the reality of the parents who have come together to form Bereaved Families for Online Safety. It is our view that this injustice should no longer be tolerated, and the return of the Online Safety Bill (OSB) will be the opportunity to address it definitively.
That is why an amendment to the OSB will be brought forward to ensure bereaved families and coroners can access the data they need. It will be tabled in the House of Lords by Baroness Kidron and carried through the House of Commons by Sajid Javid. The amendment will create a new duty by Ofcom to require social media companies to hand over relevant content on a timeframe that is fair to all parties. This will allow inquests access to information that is often withheld and provide families a route to justice.
To protect privacy, the information of other users would be redacted to ensure compliance with GDPR. And crucially, the amendments do not extend Ofcom’s reach, but enable it to provide its existing powers to the coroner. The current version of the OSB does not address the devastation these families have faced on this issue, which is why we must act. These new proposals enjoy widespread cross-party support in both the Lords and the Commons, and we are determined that they become law.
A consequence of these measures will also ensure much-needed transparency about how digital content is recommended. In the six months before she took her life, Molly engaged with more than 2000 posts on Instagram relating to suicide, self-harm and depression. She also compiled a digital pinboard on Pinterest with 469 images related to similar subjects.
This material was so horrific that it could not be shown in the media, and so traumatic that many of the professionals involved had to seek psychological support after seeing it. Yet this same content was deemed suitable by social media companies to relentlessly direct it to a 14-year-old girl. That is why our amendments will introduce a targeted measure to help coroners understand the process by which content was recommended.
Of course, our hope will always be that the OSB increases awareness and can prevent future deaths entirely. But in such tragic cases, our amendment will provide a humane route by which the full circumstances of a child’s death can be ascertained.
This legislation is providing the space for a debate that has been neglected for far too long. Many online platforms were developed in a digital wild west. We cannot afford to fall behind the curve again in applying proportionate responsibilities on them. The amendments will be part of that broader effort and deliver on our collective responsibility to ensure that no family endures what the families of Frankie, Sophie, Breck, Olly, Molly and others have faced.
It is our hope that the tragic legacy of loss can be the foundation for a new beginning. The Online Safety Bill can bring about this meaningful change and we have a responsibility to deliver on behalf of the children and families who grieve. We cannot afford to fail in this effort. That is why the Government must act.
Sajid Javid MP is a former home secretary. Baroness Kidron OBE is the founder and chair of 5Rights