Government accused of betraying families of murdered children in new data law

The Government has been accused of betraying the families of murdered children by narrowing the scope of new coroner powers to access data held by tech companies that is potentially relevant to the death of a child.

The Data Protection and Digital Information Bill, currently going through Parliament, will allow coroners who believe a child may have taken their own life to notify Ofcom to make a data preservation order.

These orders would require tech companies to hold data they may have relating to a deceased child’s use of online services and provide access for coroner investigations, which may reveal relevant factors such as exposure to self-harm or suicide content, coercion, bullying or harassment.

This also includes cases where a child accidentally caused their own death, such as from recreating an online challenge.

However, they have not included provisions to allow similar access in relation to a murdered child, or when they died in other ways where social media was potentially involved.

Baroness Kidron (pictured), an advocate for children’s rights in the digital world, argued that this leaves a “gaping hole” and is “egregiously inhumane”.

She accused the Government of going back on promises made to bereaved families, and of lacking compassion.

The independent crossbench peer said: “During passage of the Online Safety Act, we agreed to create a humane route to access data when a coroner has reason to suspect a regulated company may have information relevant to the death of the child.

“The Government has reneged by narrowing the scope to those children taking their own life.

“Expert legal advice says there are multiple scenarios under which the Government narrowing the scope creates a gaping hole in provision for families of murdered children and has introduced uncertainty and delay in cases where it may not be clear how a child died at the outset…

“Given their numbers, narrowing scope is unnecessary, disproportionate and egregiously inhumane.

“This is about parents of murdered children. The Government lacks compassion, it has created legal uncertainty, it has betrayed and retraumatised a vulnerable group to whom they had made promises.”

Lady Kidron is the founder of the 5rights charity, which campaigns for child safety online, and has worked closely with Bereaved Families for Online Safety.

This group was started by the parents of children including Molly Russell, whose death was linked by a coroner to viewing harmful online content, and Breck Bednar, who was killed by a man he met on an online gaming platform.

Viscount Camrose, a minister in the Department for Science Innovation and Technology (DSIT), told peers that it was not extended to murdered children due to existing police powers.

He said: “The new provisions do not cover children’s deaths caused by homicide because the police already have extensive investigatory powers in this context.

“These were strengthened last year by the entry into force of the US-UK data access agreement, which enables law enforcement to directly access content of communications held by US-based companies for the purpose of preventing, detecting, investigating and prosecuting serious crimes such as murder and child sexual abuse and exploitation.

“Families who have been courageously campaigning, after their children were tragically murdered, did not have access to this agreement, because it only entered into force last October.

“To date, 10,000 requests for data have been made under it.

“We do, however, understand the concerns and the Secretary of State, along with justice ministers, will work with peers ahead of committee stage and carefully listen to their arguments on potential amendments.

“We absolutely recognise the need to give families the answers they need and ensure there is no gap in the law.”

Lady Kidron argued “this is a gap that the Government itself has created”.

Viscount Camrose, whose portfolio includes artificial intelligence and intellectual property, emphasised that the Government is “firmly on the side of bereaved families”.

He said: “We consider that we have acted in good faith and we all want the same outcomes for these tragedy-struck families.”

The Data Protection and Digital Information Bill, of which data preservation orders are one element, seeks to create a new data rights regime for the UK after its exit from the EU.

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