Labour urges government to usher in ‘desperately’ needed social media regulation

Firms ‘have had repeated opportunities to show they can police their sites effectively’, says shadow culture secretary

Ashley Cowburn
Political Correspondent
Sunday 26 July 2020 22:29
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Labour has attacked the government’s failure to introduce “desperately” needed legislation to force social media companies to keep people safe online and tackle accounts spreading abuse.

It follows a series of posts from the social media accounts of grime star Wiley, who shared antisemitic views and conspiracy theories over the weekend – provoking widespread condemnation and calls for him to be suspended from the platform.

The Metropolitan Police said on Saturday it was investigating the posts and Wiley, whose real name is Richard Cowier, has since been given a seven-day ban by Twitter and dropped by his management company.

Priti Patel, the home secretary, demanded that Twitter and Instagram explain the length of time it took to remove the “abhorrent” antisemitic posts, adding: “Social media companies must act faster to remove such appalling hatred from their platforms.”

But shadow culture secretary Jo Stevens criticised the government over what she said were delays to the Online Harms Bill and said it was clear that self-regulation of social media companies “isn’t working”. A white paper proposal for the legislation was published by ministers last year pledging to create an independent regulator to set safety standards.

“While some companies have taken steps to improve safety on their platform, progress has been too slow and inconsistent overall,” the government said at the time. “If we surrender our online spaces to those who spread hate, abuse, fear and vitriolic content, then we will lose.”

Labour also pointed to abuse sent to women MPs on social media, including the former Labour frontbencher Diane Abbott. According to research after the 2017 general election, the Hackney North and Stoke Newington MP was the victim of almost half of the abuse directed at women MPs.

“The failure to tackle these high-profile examples of hate speech shows why we so desperately need proper legislation to force the social media companies to keep people safe online,” Ms Stevens said.

She added: “Social media companies have had repeated opportunities to show they can police their sites effectively. But when high profile individuals are allowed to keep their platforms after spreading vile antisemitic abuse – and then doubling down when challenged – it’s clear that self-regulation isn’t working.

“The government promised this bill more than a year ago – it’s high time they take the safety of those who use the internet as seriously as the needs and influence of the big tech firms.”

Last month, Lord Puttnam, chair of the Lords Democracy and Digital Committee, told the BBC the legislation, which is still in its proposal phase, could be delayed for years. “Here’s a bill that the government paraded as being very important – and it is – which is why they’ve managed to lose somehow,” he said.

A spokesperson for Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport said: ”There is no delay, and we continue to work at pace to deliver the most comprehensive regime to tackling online harms anywhere in the world. We will bring forward new legislation after we publish the full government response this autumn as planned.

“We will introduce new laws to place a duty of care on online platforms to ensure they keep their users safe from a wide range of harms including anti-semitism.”

Twitter has previously said “abuse and harassment” have “no place” on its service and that it takes enforcement action over accounts that violate its rules addressing hateful conduct. Facebook said there was “no place for hate speech on Instagram”.

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