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UK Wants to Criminalize Online Self-Harm Content and Make Social Media Companies Pay

An expanded version of the controversial Online Safety Bill aims to tackle posts and messages encouraging self-harm, in the wake of teen's death.

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Michelle Donelan (right) began as the UK’s Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport in September 2022. She has been a fierce proponent of the Online Safety Bill since her appointment.
Michelle Donelan (right) began as the UK’s Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport in September 2022. She has been a fierce proponent of the Online Safety Bill since her appointment.
Photo: Alastair Grant (AP)

The United Kingdom’s government has announced an expansion to the controversial, under-consideration Online Safety Bill. A proposed amendment to the bill would criminalize online messages or posts that encourage self-harm, and make social media companies liable if they fail to remove such content from their platforms. 

Under the updated legislation, if a site like Facebook or Twitter didn’t prevent or take down self-harm posts in a timely enough fashion, they would face fines, said UK Digital and Culture Secretary, Michelle Donelan, to the BBC

Encouraging suicide online and offline is already illegal and punishable with up to 14 years in prison in the UK, but the self-harm sanctions would be a significant extension of such censorship laws. The newly proposed prohibition on communications concerning self-harm come in the wake of the death of 14-year old Molly Russell, and subsequent highly publicized investigation. 

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Russell died by self-inflicted injuries in 2017. Earlier this year, a British Coroner determined that “the negative effects of online content,” played a significant role in the teen’s death. In the lead up to her death, Russell reportedly viewed and interacted with thousands of Instagram and Pinterest posts related to self-harm, suicide, and depression. 

“I am determined that the abhorrent trolls encouraging the young and vulnerable to self-harm are brought to justice,” said Donelan in a statement explaining the proposed law changes, and referencing Russell’s death. “I am strengthening our online safety laws to make sure these vile acts are stamped out and the perpetrators face jail.” 

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Previously, the British lawmaker also tweeted, “We owe it to Molly’s family to do everything in our power to stop this happening again.” And, “Our Online Safety Bill must be the answer.”

The Online Safety Bill is a sweeping piece of proposed legislation that has been on the table in the UK for more than year. It’s gone through numerous starts and stops, but is scheduled to return to the House of Commons on December 5 for another round of consideration. 

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Last week, the Ministry of Justice announced a separate amendment to the bill which would criminalize “deepfake” pornography. Or, in other words, the planned update makes sexual images and videos which have been altered to look like someone without their consent illegal, and those found guilty of sharing or creating such content could face jail time. 

The bill has the backing of child safety organization’s like the UK’s children’s charity NSPCC. However, both in and out of parliament, the legislation has been criticized for its would-be sweeping impacts on online speech and tech companies. For instance, the current draft of the proposed bill would require private messaging apps to be able to detect and remove child pornography, meaning that platforms would need to be able to review all private messages between users, endangering the legality of end-to-end encryption in the UK. 

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According to the digital privacy advocacy non-profit group, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Online Safety Bill “attacks free speech and encryption.” The group vehemently opposes the legislation and warns that, if passed, it could become “a blueprint for repression around the world.”