Molly Russell inquest and the online platforms debate

We would like to extend our sympathies to the family of Molly Russell and we trust they will be allowed the space to come to terms in private with the outcome of the inquest on their daughter’s death.

However, the public debate that has emerged around the role of online platforms, in particular the scrutiny of their role, has had some unfortunate aspects. It is important to highlight some of the issues with regard to policy-making, as difficult as that may be.

There are good reasons for public policy intervention with regard to content related to suicide and self-harm. We understand that such content is deeply troubling.

The coroner’s conclusion was that the volume of content related to suicide and self-harm that had been viewed by Molly is likely to have affected her mental health and ultimately contributed in some way to her death. A spreadsheet of analytics data was provided by the platforms, as well as posts that had been viewed by Molly. The coroner commented on the way that this material was presented to without her requesting it.

However reactive policy-making is never a good idea. Policy-making is about due diligence and consultation, to ensure that measures to address harms, do not create harms in other areas or to other users.

Content related to suicide and self-harm requires a nuanced approach. From a broader perspective, it must take into account issues around mental health, anxiety and depression. It should be addressed holistically on a community basis. Online platforms can also develop alternative approaches to how they handle this type of content, as have some Wikipedia editors, for example.

The Online Safety Bill, as currently drafted, is unlikely to tackle these issues. Instead, it turns to the criminal offence of ‘Assisting suicide’ in Section 2 of the 1961 Suicide Act. This is about criminal liability for complicity in a suicide. Our understanding is that this piece of law was intended to address a different situation from the one that is highlighted by Molly Russell’s case. In any event, the criminalisation of the content, or the person posting it, without attention to the context, does not seem to a sensible way forward for public policy.

The Bill also proposes to address it under harmful content. This is an undefined and nebulous concept and without clear definition of the type of posts that should be tackled by online platforms, it will inevitably result in either failure to address the harmful content, or over-blocking of content that is in the public interest.

A better way forward would be to take this issue out of the Bill and propose a bespoke law, that will allow policy-makers and MPs to devise a holistic, collaborative solution, that includes communities and social services, as well as online platforms.

The Online Safety Bill, as a huge measure attempting to solve myriad problems under a single omnibus approach, risks failing precisely the people it is supposed to be helping, not least people in similar circumstances to those highlighted by this case.