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What teachers need to know about online safety laws

Words by Charlotte Aynsley, safeguarding advisor at Impero

Given the incredible work they are doing during the pandemic, teachers and school staff may not be up to date on the latest news about internet safety legislation. But these laws will directly impact the safety of students in the years ahead, and teachers can be a powerful lobby for changes in their timing or extent, so it is important for teachers to understand the legislative landscape.

As children spend more time online, they are more likely to encounter threats. For example, the volume of child sexual abuse imagery has increased significantly during the lockdown. At Impero, our recent survey found that 64% of primary and secondary school teachers had dealt with reports of online bullying. It is clearer today than ever before that the work of safeguarding students must span both the virtual world and the real world, and these laws will affect this work. Here’s what teachers need to know about the two largest pieces of online safety legislation. 

Europe’s ePrivacy Directive

The first law worth knowing about is the European commission’s ePrivacy Directive. The directive, which has been in place for several years but is currently being updated, aims to improve the privacy of online communications. However, child safety has become an issue in discussions over the law. Debate in the European Parliament reached a deadlock at the end of 2020 about a potential exemption to the law designed to protect children from abuse.

Currently, the directive’s robust privacy policies offer respite for abusers and others who would harm children. For instance, Facebook has paused some scanning of private messages for child abuse because of the law’s current manifestation. The NSPCC has accused Facebook of going too far in this reading of the legislation and called for immediate resumption of message scanning.

Despite Brexit, many international companies and social media networks will still abide by the European directive. For that reason, the UK government has issued a statement calling for an urgent exemption to the law for child safety.

The UK’s Online Harms Bill

Some teachers may already be familiar with the Online Harms Bill. The legislation was first proposed in a 2019 white paper, intended to improve child safety online by establishing a new regulator to enforce clear rules for companies operating online. The law would create new codes of practice for companies and enforce a statutory duty of care, making it safer for young people to be online.

Unfortunately, the legislation has faced constant delays and obstacles from several directions.  For example, experts have recently suggested that a post-Brexit trade deal with the US may see the UK bow to pressure from American tech giants to water down the bill. Meanwhile, the coalition supporting a strong bill continues to grow and now includes educators, experts, and professional footballers who have experienced harassment online.

What does this mean for teachers?

Every day, teachers do an outstanding job of safeguarding students, both online and in the classroom. If handled correctly, these laws will support teachers by reducing  online threats to students and increasing the recourse that they will have if they experience bullying, abuse, or other online harm. In short, these regulations should make teachers’ lives easier – if they’re working properly – so it’s essential that the industry is aware of them and gets behind them.