The Times calls for tougher action on online harms

Posted on: November 10, 2020 by Claire Meadows

Social media companies have “evaded their responsibilities” for too long and the government must prioritise urgent action on online harms, The Times has said.

Writing in a leader today (Tuesday 10 November), the paper said that social media platforms continued to let Channel smuggles tout crossings that have proved fatal in recent months because platforms were failing to remove pages used by trafficking gangs to advertise the trips despite hundreds of requests by the National Crime Agency.

It said: “Despite hundreds of requests from the National Crime Agency, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have failed to remove pages used by trafficking gangs to advertise the cross-Channel trips that have too often proved fatal in recent months. Between January and May of this year the agency referred 1,218 of the pages used to lure desperate families to potential death to the sites for closure. Fewer than half were closed. Such grim human traffic continues even in the depths of winter thanks in part to the inaction of social media firms.”

Too often the likes of Facebook and Twitter appear content to leave the job of stopping the spread of harmful content to governments, The Times said and platforms needed to take more responsibility for content available on their sites.

It added: “Earlier this week GCHQ announced a cyber-offensive to disrupt the online propaganda operations of hostile states such as Russia, which have been the source of much of the anti-vaccine material that proliferates on social media. But why should it be left to the spy agency to inform social networks of the presence of dangerous and misleading propaganda on their platforms? Given their ample resources, why are social media reforms unable to fulfil the most basic responsibilities of any publisher?”

Government “squeamishness” had meant social media platforms have largely avoided their responsibilities to date if companies such as Twitter and Facebook refuse to act on online harms, ministers should compel them to do so with fines and tougher sanctions, the paper added.

It said: “It may be 2022 before the publication of the long-delayed Online Harms Bill, which would finally introduce a statutory regulator for social networks. More pertinently for Silicon Valley giants preoccupied with making profits, sites that failed to remove hateful or illegal content would face fines of up to 4 per cent of their global turnover. Such sanctions are not only overdue but are likely to be the only language those who profit from hate and misinformation understand. Having given firms far too many chances to self-regulate, it is about time ministers started speaking it.”

The Society of Editors has backed calls for online harms legislation to tackle the problem of harmful content on online platforms. Supporting calls for social media companies to do more to protect users online, the Society has also warned of the necessity of safeguards to protect press freedom and the mainstream media and urged caution in any attempts to create an ‘Orwellian Ministry of Truth’ to determine what is and isn’t misinformation.

Read the full Times piece here.