A couple of years ago, one of the biggest social media companies accused me in a meeting of ‘trying to shut down the internet’ after I dared to ask them to be more transparent and to take responsibility for the appalling content hosted on their platform. I wanted them to be an engaged player in giving children the power, resilience and information they need to make informed choices about what they do online. Instead, their response showed an evasive and defensive multi-billion dollar corporation turning its nose up at the very idea that they should be in any way responsible for who is using their sites or what they are looking at.
This attitude is showing signs of changing, but not quickly enough. Finally, the internet giants are realising that they can’t just arrogantly dismiss the fears of parents or the many children struggling to cope with this life of ‘likes’ in what the NSPCC has called ‘The Wild West’. The Government has also woken up and at last committed to bringing forward new laws to tackle online harms.
There is no longer any excuse for delay and the tragic case of Molly Russell should be a spur for real action. Search Instagram right now and you will find over 640,000 images with the hashtag #selfharm. The top few pictures will shock you – close ups of teenagers with slashed arms alongside pictures normalising suicide. They are not hard to find, but nobody has bothered to remove them, even now in the face of public concern.
If a magazine publisher put together 100 pages of pictures of children openly showing off self-inflicted scars and gave them away free in supermarkets to anyone who wanted one, there would be outrage. If a TV channel pumped out images glorifying suicide round the clock, it would be shut down by Ofcom. Yet this content is easily available on every laptop, tablet and phone for any child, of any age. Yes, parents must take responsibility for what their children are looking at online, but we have all relied on the hosts to self-regulate for too long.
So today I am publishing my own proposals for what the Government’s new legislation should be: a statutory Duty of Care – something the Telegraph has been campaigning for since last year. With the help of the leading privacy law firm Schillings, I have drafted what this would look like in law, and it is a powerful yet simple proposal.
It would mean online providers like Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram and others would owe a duty to take all reasonable and proportionate care to protect children from any reasonably foreseeable harm. Harmful content would include images around bullying, harassment and abuse, discrimination or hate speech, violent or threatening behaviour, glorifying illegal or harmful activity, encouraging suicide or self harm and addiction or unhealthy body images.
Tech companies tell me that protecting children on their platforms is difficult. They say sometimes to try to avoid protections they have put in place, children lie about their age to gain access to platforms they are not technically allowed to be on. As my proposed duty of care makes clear, this does not absolve companies of their responsibility. We know that children behave in this way – can it really be the case that companies are not able to find a way of anticipating this behaviour and responding?
A duty of care will certainly strengthen the incentives for them to do so. There will be sanctions for when the duty is broken. As in the case of GDPR breaches, these will include fines, and they must be significant. But even more importantly, in a world where the largest of these companies are able to easily absorb financial penalties, they must be made to admit publicly when they are failing to protect children. That would mean posting information about the breach on their platform for all users to see, including the details of the complaint, the size of their fine and what action they will be taking to correct their mistake.
We should never lose sight of the benefits of the digital revolution. Children learn and connect in ways I could never have imagined when I was growing up. We need to keep the good while doing all we can to protect children from the bad. We can only do that if the internet giants, who play such a massive part in the lives of our kids, are made to accept that with power also comes responsibility.