UK: Online Safety Bill will usher in new age of accountability, Digital Sec Donelan insists




By Rt Hon Michelle Donelan MP


After the horrific mass shootings at two Christchurch mosques in 2019, social media companies vowed that they would do “all they can to fight the hatred and extremism” that led to the terrorist attack. And yet it is clear that big tech is still not doing enough to protect its Muslim users. A recent report by the Centre for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) found that the largest platforms – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and TikTok – had failed to act on nearly 9 out of 10 anti-Muslim and Islamophobic posts on their sites. That is absolutely appalling. This virtual hatred has real-life ramifications: Home Office figures show that British Muslims are the victims of the highest number – 42% – of hate crimes.

Big tech are breaking their own promises to their users. Racism and anti-Muslim hatred is explicitly banned in almost every single platform’s own terms and conditions – so why is the vast majority of this repugnant content staying up? These companies have no excuses. They are among the most innovative and wealthiest companies in the world. It is totally within their power to devise technological solutions to tackle this problem. Instead, they have monetized hatred, knowing it attracts clicks and eyeballs. They have prioritised profit over people.

Silicon Valley continues to shirk its responsibilities. But soon it will no longer have the option under our Online Safety Bill. This groundbreaking legislation returns to Parliament this week, and when it passes, we will be entering a new age of accountability for social media companies. Children are at the heart of this legislation. But it also contains three crucial layers of protection for adults – a “triple shield” of defence

First, if it is illegal – as a lot of anti-Muslim hatred is – then it has to be urgently removed. The same applies if it is banned in a company’s own terms and conditions. This second layer of protection covers more subtle forms of Islamophobia – such as conspiracy theories like the “Great Replacement”, which claims that non-white immigrants are ‘replacing’ white people and culture in Western countries

And lastly, I have added in a third and final safety net that acts as a backstop to the tough measures above. Adults will be given new powers to limit their exposure to a whole range of legal material that is abusive or incites hatred on the basis of religion and race. Users will be in the driving seat of their own social media accounts, and they will be more protected than at any other point in the internet age.

If social media platforms fail in any of these duties, they will face serious consequences – including huge fines and, if necessary, the potential blocking of their sites. That will hit them where it hurts. These measures finally give companies like Twitter and Facebook the incentive to act.

Will the Bill mean that we will never see a piece of Islamophobic bile online again? Sadly not. The internet is a vast public square, full of billions of people engaging with each other every second of every day. Unfortunately, that means that some things will slip under the net.

But this Bill is a gamechanger. Platforms will no longer be able to make empty promises like the ones they made after Christchurch. Some of the most powerful companies on the planet will finally be held to account. For the first time ever, they will have to protect all of their users – or face the consequences.

 Rt Hon Michelle Donelan MP is Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport 

[Photo: Rt Hon Michelle Donelan MP is Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. Photo courtesy DCMS]

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