The Guardian view on regulating social media: the internet should … – The Guardian

Posted under Cibercommunity, Technology On By James Steward

Ministers’ ambitions have been scaled back but their bill must protect children robustly
What happened to Molly Russell, who took her own life aged 14, was a tragedy. Everything possible must be done to prevent similar events in the future. Molly’s death was linked by a coroner to internet use after she was shown in a London court to have been deluged with algorithmically driven self-harm material. On the principle that this was wrong, and that social media companies must take more responsibility for what happens on their platforms, there is a good deal of agreement across party lines in parliament as well as among the public.
But beyond such painful case studies, and some generalisations drawn from them, consensus starts to break down. Legislating to fix the many problems created or exacerbated by social media is difficult. Digital technologies move fast and unpredictably. So far, societies and governments have not succeeded in restricting their harmful and destructive uses, while harnessing creative and productive ones. The UK’s online safety bill, which returns to the House of Commons on Tuesday, has already been several years in the making, and further changes are needed before it becomes law. Even then, no one should imagine that this is a job done. Instead, the bill should be viewed as an awkward step on an arduous journey.
The new law’s emphasis was altered markedly by last year’s decision to weaken the duties related to the protection of adults from harmful content, and focus on children. This was driven by concerns around free speech, particularly the contested nature of “hate” and who gets to define it. For now, the wider degradation of the public realm by social media, including the amplification of abusive language and imagery, will remain unchallenged. Labour’s Lucy Powell has already said that if the government rejects amendments aimed at increasing tech companies’ accountability, Labour will seek to do so in future.
There is a good chance that one change sought by backbenchers, making individual executives criminally liable for child protection breaches, will be accepted. This is important, not least in sending a clear signal that the public will understand. But the prospect of prosecution must form part of a wider framework of sanctions that forces digital businesses to put children’s safety first. Until now, they have got away with treating this as someone else’s problem.
It is only because the coroner in Molly Russell’s case compelled Meta and others to give evidence that we know what we do about her mistreatment. It took the courage of a whistleblower, Frances Haugen, to reveal that Facebook (now Meta) knew Instagram was making teenage girls feel worse about their bodies. This week, Ian Russell, Molly’s father, described the platforms’ responses to the notice issued by the coroner in his daughter’s case as “business as usual”.
This laissez-faire approach must end. While the Conservative party was distracted by internal battles through much of 2022, children using the internet faced what Peter Wanless, the head of the NSPCC, calls “sexual abuse on an industrial scale”. Ofcom needs new powers to act for bereaved parents. Individuals must be empowered to make complaints. And the bill must be comprehensive so that platforms cannot rule themselves and their algorithms outside its scope.
Media businesses have been associated with harm as well as good in the past. Never before have they pushed themselves so aggressively at children while being so careless of the effects. The online safety bill must rewrite the rules and deliver an ultimatum.


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