UK: Tech giants must tackle cyberbullies or face curbs

Tech giants must tackle cyberbullies or face curbs
Francis Elliott, Political Editor | Mark Bridge, Technology Correspondent
February 27 2017, 12:01am, The Times

Social media and technology companies face sanctions unless they do more to curb cyberbullying, sexting and trolling, as part of a new internet safety strategy.

Ministers are to summon Facebook, Twitter, Apple and others to Whitehall and will demand that they develop new technological solutions similar to those used to thwart paedophiles and terrorists.

The call will be backed by the threat of legislation, with a green paper promised in the summer. Theresa May will commit today to making Britain the safest place in the world for children to be online.

Fears about sexting have superseded parental worries over drinking and drug-taking. A study for the NSPCC and the children’s commissioner found that 13 per cent of those aged between 11 and 16 had taken topless “selfies”.

More than a tenth of young people reported that they had been victims of cyberbullying. There is growing worry of links between internet use and an increased risk of self-harm.

While children and young people are to be the main focus of the government drive for internet safety, it will also attempt to counter online rape threats. The dark side of social media was highlighted yesterday when the singer Lily Allen announced that she was leaving Twitter after being taunted by trolls about her stillborn son.

The scale of online threats to children and young people is to be the subject of a government-commissioned study by Sonia Livingstone, a professor of social psychology at the London School of Economics. Theresa May has admitted that the explosion of online risks has outstripped the official response. Government aides said that the tech companies would be asked to discuss their “responsibilities to society” and “how technology can help provide solutions” at a meeting within weeks.

Allies of Karen Bradley, the culture secretary, emphasised that, in the first instance, the government wanted a co-operative approach but Jeremy Hunt, the health secretary, made clear the government’s frustration last year.

Mr Hunt called on social media and technology companies “to show us how they can be the solution to the issue of mental ill health among teenagers, and not the cause of the problem” when he gave evidence to the Commons health committee last November.

“There is a lot of evidence that the technology industry, if they put their mind to it, can do really smart things,” he said. “I think there are a lot of things where social media companies could put options in their software that could reduce the risks associated with social media, and I do think that is something which they should actively pursue.”

Experts say demands that tech companies deploy picture or word-pattern recognition software, which is used against online paedophilia and terrorism, to stop sexting and bullying, are naive. They ignore the fact that many popular platforms use encryption.

In evidence to the Commons health committee published last week the Samaritans warned that while there were correlations “between internet use and self-harm” there were limitations to banning or blocking suicide- related websites.

“While we cannot realistically hope to remove all harmful suicide-related content online there is still progress that can be made by encouraging the organisations which operate highly popular sites, such as social networks, search engine providers and news media outlets, to develop responsible practices relating to suicide which reduce the availability of harmful content and promote sources of support,” the charity’s submission said.

Whatever new screening is implemented, technology companies face having to enforce stricter age controls, so children do not simply circumvent measures to protect under-18s by falsifying their age.

The government will need to consider tough sanctions for websites or apps where risks to children appear rife. The Times recently reported on the Yellow app, dubbed “Tinder for teens”, which features the profiles of thousands of teenagers looking to share sexual images.


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