We're taking back control from Silicon Valley

Article written for the Daily Telegraph published 17 March 2022

The future is digital. Hybrid working, speaking to loved ones far away, community organising to send supplies to Ukraine: the internet has made this all so much easier. But so far, we’ve struggled to rein in the wild west of the internet, where abuse, crime, and disinformation can spread unchecked.

To do nothing is to go even further down the rabbit hole, into a dystopia where no-one trusts anyone, and the most vulnerable in society, especially children, bear the brunt of our inaction. 

In 2019, I stood on a Conservative manifesto that pledged to make the UK the safest place in the world to be online, and from July to December 2021, I chaired a Joint Committee of the Lords and the Commons in charge of scrutinising the draft Online Safety Bill. We set out a clear list of recommendations back in December, on how to make the legislation stronger, whilst also protecting freedom of speech and the freedom of the press. Based on the evidence we received, and our report, the Government has drastically changed the bill for the better, accepting sixty-six recommendations made by the Joint Committee.

Free speech campaigners and those representing victims of online harms alike told the Committee how important it was for the Bill to explicitly list which offences platforms would have to clamp down on. The Daily Telegraph has also campaigned for years for a greater duty of care from tech companies to protect people from content that promotes harm. The Government has accepted the Joint Committee’s recommendation to do this, stating now that social media companies will become legally responsible for acting against hate crimes, the glorification of suicide, terrorism, child abuse and the organisation of illegal immigration, as well as other existing offences. 

Nick Clegg and other tech policy makers in Silicon Valley will no longer just be able to use their own judgement on whether content hosted and promoted on their systems is offensive. British laws passed in our Parliament will, as it always should have done, take that role. This is the most important aspect of the bill, that illegal activity offline will be regulated online, and that this will be based on laws passed by our parliament. Fraser Nelson was wrong in his recent article in the Daily Telegraph to assert that the Online Safety Bill will make companies like Facebook even more powerful. In fact, it will do the reverse, it will require them to meet safety standards set by an independent regulator and based on UK laws.

The Joint Committee heard from Martin Lewis that a man lost £19,000 to an online investment scam, as did a grandmother who lost the money her grandchild inherited from their deceased parent. We learned how easy it is to advertise false, and sometimes dangerous, products and services on Facebook and Google. If the Bill excluded paid-for ads from scope, it would allow fraud to keep happening. The Government has now said the big social media companies will be required to prevent fraud, even in paid-for ads, in a major win for consumer rights. Big Tech lobbied against this change, despite already claiming in their terms of service to not allow fraudulent ads.

The Children’s Commissioner told us that over half of 11–13-year-olds have seen pornography online, distorting their views of healthy relationships and consent and leading to addiction. But if pornographic websites don’t host ‘user-generated’ content, then even if they present a threat to children, they fell out of scope of the Online Safety Bill. Again, in a victory for children’s rights, the Government has accepted our recommendation and will now mandate age assurance systems.

And lastly, the Joint Committee heard from Rio FerdinandDame Margaret Hodge MP, and the Football Association that anonymity can disinhibit some users, leading to an onslaught of attacks, like the abuse directed at England footballers after the Euros final last summer. At the same time, Stonewall and the Nobel Peace Prize winning journalist Maria Ressa told us anonymity allows for people at risk to express themselves and reach out to the world. We told the Government that giving users the choice about whether they want to engage with anonymous accounts, rather than banning anonymity outright, would allow the problem to be addressed whilst protecting freedom of speech: I’m glad they’ve agreed. The social media platforms will also have to act against race hate on their platforms, whether it is posted by anonymous accounts or not.

It’s clear that the Online Safety Bill has been greatly strengthened. We’re finally tipping the balance in favour of democracy over algorithms, setting a gold standard for online safety for the free world to follow.

Copyright 2024 Damian Collins. All rights reserved

Promoted by Dylan Jeffrey on behalf of Damian Collins, both of FHCA, 4 West Cliff Gardens, Folkestone, Kent, CT20 1SP.


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