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UK opposition calls for better online protections for children

FILE PHOTO: Snapchat app is seen on a smartphone in this illustration

By Martin Coulter

LONDON (Reuters) -Britain's opposition Labour Party has called on the government to enact its long-delayed Online Safety Bill, after Reuters revealed how few underage children Snap Inc had removed from its Snapchat platform.

Britain, like other countries and the European Union, has been grappling with how to protect social media users, and in particular children, from harmful content without damaging free speech.

On Friday, Reuters reported that Snapchat was removing only dozens of children in Britain from its platform each month, compared with tens of thousands blocked by rival TikTok.

"Parents are crying out for better protections for children online and especially on social media," said Lucy Powell, Shadow Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport in a statement issued in response to Reuters' report.

"The Government has delayed and now watered down the online safety bill, relying almost entirely on age verification technologies which aren't fool proof, when we know that many children pass themselves off as older online."

Powell added that the British government needs to strengthen the bill to "take on the algorithms and business models of platforms which promote harm and fail to protect children."

According to the data shared with media regulator Ofcom and seen by Reuters, between April 2021 and April 2022, TikTok blocked an average of around 180,000 suspected underage accounts in Britain every month, or around 2 million in that 12-month period.

In the same period, Snapchat told the watchdog it had removed approximately 60 accounts per month, or just over 700 in total.

A Snap spokesperson told Reuters the figures misrepresented the scale of work performed by the company to keep under-13s off its platform. The spokesperson declined to provide additional context or to detail specific blocking measures taken by the company.

A government spokesperson told Reuters the Online Safety Bill would stop social media platforms from letting underage users onto their platforms.

"Tech firms will have to put in place tough measures such as age assurance technologies to ensure they properly enforce their own user age limits, with huge fines for those who don't comply."

(Reporting by Martin Coulter in LondonEditing by Sharon Singleton and Matthew Lewis)