Instagram finally acts – but the state should now be given the power to take on the biggest firms on earth

The law needs to be backed by a much tougher regulator, with enough clout behind it so it can take on the social media giants

Liam Byrne MP
Friday 08 February 2019 18:59 GMT
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It’s past time for these companies to step up to their responsibilities
It’s past time for these companies to step up to their responsibilities (PA)

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After a global backlash in the wake of Molly Russell’s tragic death, Instagram has finally, reluctantly done the right thing and agreed to wipe awful images of self harm from our children’s’ screens. It’s about time.

How did it come to this? This was not Instagram’s first offence, and it is now clearer than ever – this government’s soft-touch approach to the internet has to end.

For months we’ve known about disturbing suicide “games” spreading around social media platforms. For example the “blue whale challenge”, which goaded vulnerable teens into self-harm, has been linked to a hundred teenage deaths in Russia – with evidence of the game spreading to India and the UK. Instagram warned those typing the relevant search terms with a notification but allowed users to dismiss it and click through to disturbing images of self-harm.

Elsewhere, social media companies not only turn a blind eye to the harmful effects their platforms can have on children, but actively encourage unhealthy behaviour. An open letter by fifty psychologists in the US earlier this summer accused colleagues of undertaking unethical work for digital platforms. Despite significant evidence that excessive use of social media damages children’s development and puts young people at risk of depression, platforms invest in behavioral tools designed by psychologists to pull children in and keep them hooked.

We cannot go on like this. The digital world is a place of dazzling opportunity for a young person – but also serious dangers. That’s why we’ve proposed a three-part plan for reform.

First, last year we argued that a new duty of care is needed to bite on social media firms. If you built a stadium, all sorts of health and safety laws would make sure it was safe. If you build an online stadium and invite millions of children, you’re under no such obligations. I welcome the health secretary now talking about duty-of-care too, but their commitment still remains unclear and there are other key areas where the government needs to get serious.

After pressure from Labour during the passing of the Data Protection Bill, the information commissioner has been given the power to draft and enforce an “Age Appropriate Design Code” outlining the standards that social media giants will be expected to live up to when processing children’s data.

But this is not enough. The law needs new reform to make sure social media giants are forced to pin-point the harms they risk creating and prove they are taking steps to safeguard everyone against those dangers.

Second, the law needs to be backed by a much tougher regulator, with the powers it needs to take on the biggest firms on earth.

Nine different UK regulators cover different parts of the digital world. We need consolidation to ensure regulators have the strength, focus and force to keep people safe. And we will need a penalty regime that hits huge, otherwise unaccountable firms where it hurts: in their bottom line.

The current law allows for companies in breach of the code to be fined up to £18m, but with companies like Google worth more than £90bn, this is not a serious deterrent. In the courts, crimes against children can be used as cause for harsher punishment. If deliberately targeting vulnerable victims is cause for tougher penalties in other parts of the law, why should social media companies that exploit their youngest users’ data not face tougher fines?

Finally, these reforms need enshrining in a bold statement of first principles – a bill of digital rights for the 21st century – to include, the universal right to digital literacy. Ultimately the best defence against a Wild West internet is well-informed citizens.

Children are children, online or off. And children are one third of online users. It’s past time for social media giants – some of the largest firms on earth – to step up to their responsibilities. If they fail to, democratic government must step in to safeguard the rights and the safety of our young people.

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