Online safety rules have ‘blind spot’ to radicalisation of children, terror watchdog warns

Warning that proposals by Ofcom - responsible for protecting the public from 'illegal harms' under the Online Safety Act - fail to treat young people as being at particular risk

The Standard, UK/January 24, 2024

By Martin Bentham

The risk of children being radicalised by extremism on social media is “a blind spot” in new safety rules being drawn up to tackle toxic content online, the government’s terror watchdog warned on Wednesday.

Jonathan Hall KC said that proposals by the media regulator Ofcom – which has been given the duty of protecting the public from “illegal harms” under the Online Safety Act – failed to treat young people as being at particular danger of being lured into terrorism online.

He said this was despite a succession of police warnings about the growing number of teenagers being radicalised online and arrested for terror offences and that the new rules needed to be beefed up to ensure that tech giants including Tik Tok, Facebook, X and Google were required to act against extremist content.

Mr Hall, the independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, added that if Ofcom failed to strengthen its rules it would “arguably result in a breach” of its own legal duties and that it should instead “acknowledge youth as a factor” in terrorist risk and ensure “that higher protection from terrorism content is required .. for children than for adults”.

“The internet is a major source of radicalisation and self-radicalisation of children, resulting in a well-documented increase in children being investigated and arrested for terrorism offences,” Mr Hall wrote in a submission to a consultation by the regulator on its planned new code of conduct on protecting the public from illegal content online.

But despite this, he added: “Ofcom appears to have a blind spot in its analysis of risk. It fails to consider that age is a risk factor relating to the harm used by terrorism content. The necessary special protection for children against exposure to terrorism content is missing.”

Among the evidence cited by Mr Hall is a recent article in the Evening Standard in which he said the “head of the Met Police’s counter-terrorism unit Commander Dominic Murphy had warned about an “uncomfortable” increase in child radicalisation driven by an online environment that was enabling young Londoners to consume a mix of toxic ideologies, thereby fuelling the terrorist threat.”

Mr Hall said other illustrations of the increased vulnerability of children and older teenagers to online radicalisation included recent government guidance identifying a “concerning number of children” who commit terrorism offences by downloading and disseminating terrorist materials online and a French security services warning that Islamic State propaganda is “seducing a new generation of teenagers”.

Further examples included the government’s Counter Terrorism Internet Referral Unit identified a 12-fold increase in hateful social media content since the Hamas terrorist attacks of October with profile that appeared to be “skewing younger” and counter-terrorism statistics for the year ending September 2023 showing the joint highest ever number of child arrests.

Mr Hall said that in response to such evidence, the “bare minimum” that Ofcom should require was that online providers “periodically review the risk of children accessing terrorism content on their service” and that they “demonstrate how they are prioritising the avoidance of children encountering terrorism content on their service.”

He said that duties that currently applied to protecting young people from child sexual abuse and exploitation should also be extended to cover terrorist content.

Under the Online Safety Act, Ofcom has the power to fine companies up to £18 million or ten per cent of turnover, depending which is larger, if they breach the new rules. Additional penalties for failing to comply with the requirement to remove unsafe material can also be imposed. The fines can be imposed on companies based overseas as well as those in the UK.

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