Social networks accused of ignoring interests of young users

Matt Hancock has written to a number of internet giants following the death of 14-year-old Molly Russell, telling them they have a duty to act. Picture: Family handout/PA Wire
Matt Hancock has written to a number of internet giants following the death of 14-year-old Molly Russell, telling them they have a duty to act. Picture: Family handout/PA Wire
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Social networks have been accused of showing little regard for the security and interests of their users, as the UK government prepares for legislative measures that could enforce the removal of harmful content.

A White Paper on online harms will be published by the end of winter setting out expectations for social media companies, followed by a consultation over the summer that will set out new laws.

Speaking to children at a Safer Internet Day event yesterday, the UK government’s digital minister Margot James said social networks had relied “far too little on the role of the law”.

“Online safety is a top priority for the government and we want to make the UK the safest place to be online,” she said.

“Internet companies have always enjoyed legal protection from liability for user-generated content and this laissez-faire environment has led some companies to pursue growth and profitability with little regard for the security and interests of their users.

“There is far too much bullying, abuse, misinformation and manipulation online as well as, I’m afraid, serious organised crime. For too long, the response of many of the large platforms has fallen short.

“There have been no fewer than 15 voluntary codes of practice agreed with platforms since 2008. Where we are now, is an absolute indictment of a system which has relied far too little on the role of the law.

“The White Paper, which my department, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport, is producing with the Home Office, will be followed by a consultation over the summer and it will set out new legislative measures to ensure that the platforms remove illegal content and prioritise the protection of users, especially children, young people and vulnerable adults.”

The speech comes amid growing concern about children being exposed to illegal content on social networks and follows news of the death of Molly Russell, 14, whose family found she had viewed content on social media linked to anxiety, depression, self-harm and suicide before taking her own life in November 2017.

MP Damian Collins, chairman of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, said: “Throughout my committee’s inquiry into disinformation and ‘fake news’ we have consistently encountered the attitude from social media companies that they are above Parliament, above government and above the law. The Government agree with us that this is unacceptable, that enough is enough, and the only solution is to introduce laws to ensure that they maintain the highest standards of safety and content moderation.”