news & Things

Tech Giants To Be Held Accountable For Harmful Content

07th Feb 2022

Three new criminal offences added to online safety bill

 

Social networks could be fined up to 10% of their global turnover if government’s online safety bill is passed.

The companies will also need to be proactive in removing harmful content, under the new changes.

The bill covers topics like revenge porn, human trafficking, extremism and promoting suicide online.

Websites that host user-generated content, like Facebook and Twitter, will be required to swiftly remove illegal content once it’s reported to them.

But now they’ll have to place proactive measures to stop illegal activity.

 

The issue’s become a hot topic with incidents like racist abuse of footballers, revenge porn and cyberflashing, and covid disinformation being highlighted as key safety concerns for social media companies to address.

Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries urges for the online platforms to start implementing the changes now rather than later, when the bill is in force.

 

“They can start doing what they need to do to remove those harmful algorithms and to remove much of the damage that they do, particularly to young people and to society as a whole.”

Nadine Dorries, Culture Secretary

 

The minster added that the move would hold social media companies to account for the first time.

 

Judy Thomas, whose daughter Frankie took her own life aged 15 in September 2018, said she had access distressing material on her school computer and tablet in the hours and months before her death. Ms Thomas calls for mandatory age verification to protect children online and says all websites should be included in the bill and not just the larger platforms.

“Back in January, February, March [2018] she’d been accessing, at school, horrendous sites. We need to ensure young people simply cannot access online harms, and that if companies do the wrong thing… that there is a real price to pay,”

Judy Thomas

 

Ms Thomas also adds that the penalties must not just be financial, as many businesses can absorb fines quite easily, instead the heads of these firms must also be “held to account”.

 

When asked about age verification, Ms Dorries said the government was looking into the idea but logistically there was a “downside” to requiring all children to verify their age to access the internet.

 

“And young people go on to the internet to go shopping, you know, on clothes. Do we need to ensure that they verify their age when they’re doing that?”

Nadine Dorries, Culture Secretary

 

The government confirms the added offences which have been added to the list of priority offences, which platforms must remove under the changes, and they’re as follows:

  • Revenge porn
  • Hate crimes
  • Fraud
  • The sale of illegal drugs or weapons
  • The promotion or facilitation of suicide
  • People smuggling
  • Sexual exploitation

 

Before the changes, companies were only required to take down reported posts – but the changes will force companies to take proactive measures in preventing users from seeing them in the first place.

The government says that by naming these offences it’s enabled Ofcom – the proposed regulator – to take faster action.

The changes were a result of three separate parliamentary committee reports which all warned that the bill required strengthening and more clarity for tech firms.

On top of this, three new criminal offences have been added to the bill.

 

The first is sending “genuinely threatening communications” such as a threat to rape, kill or cause financial harm, or coercive and controlling behaviour and online stalking.

Sending “harmful communications”, such as a domestic abuser sending an ex-partner a photograph of their front door to frighten them, is the second. However, offensive content with no intent to cause serious distress would not be illegal.

The final new offence is “knowingly false communications”, which would cover messages deliberately sent to inflict harm”, such as a hoax bomb threat.

 

The bill does not prohibit “misinformation”, such as a false coronavirus cure on a social media post, so long as those sharing the post are unaware that what they were spreading is false.

What do the companies think?

 

The big technology companies say they welcome the “clarity” that the new online safety bill brings and that they recognise the need for regulation.

In many cases they’ve not waited for governments to step in, and there have been investments into technology such as machine learning in order to identify harmful content at scale.

 

While you have many people saying the bill does not go far enough, social media businesses are worried about free speech issues.

It is important for them to ensure the new rules don’t stifle people’s access to information by causing companies to “over-moderate” in order to comply with them.

 

Due to the vast scope of the online safety bill, there will always be critics however, experts underline that its introduction will be nothing short of revolutionary in policing the online world, and it’ll be a very different experience for the next generation.

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