Social networks have been accused of showing little regard for the security and interests of their users, as the Government prepares for legislative measures that could enforce the removal of harmful content.
A White Paper on online harms will be published by the end of winter setting out expectations for social media companies, followed by a consultation over the summer that will set out new laws.
Speaking to children at a Safer Internet Day event on Tuesday, digital minister Margot James said social networks had relied “far too little on the role of the law”.
“Online safety is a top priority for the Government and we want to make the UK the safest place to be online,” she said.
“Internet companies have always enjoyed legal protection from liability for user generated content and this laissez-faire environment has led some companies to pursue growth and profitability with little regard for the security and interests of their users.
“There is far too much bullying, abuse, misinformation and manipulation online as well as, I’m afraid, serious organised crime. For too long, the response of many of the large platforms has fallen short.
“There have been no fewer than 15 voluntary codes of practice agreed with platforms since 2008. Where we are now, is an absolute indictment of a system which has relied far too little on the role of the law.
“The White Paper, which my department, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS), is producing with the Home Office, will be followed by a consultation over the summer and it will set out new legislative measures to ensure that the platforms remove illegal content and prioritise the protection of users, especially children, young people and vulnerable adults.”
The speech comes amid growing concern about children being exposed to illegal content on social networks and follows news of the death of Molly Russell, 14, whose family found she had viewed content on social media linked to anxiety, depression, self-harm and suicide before taking her own life in November 2017.
MP Damian Collins, chairman of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, said: “Throughout my committee’s inquiry into disinformation and ‘fake news’ we have consistently encountered the attitude from social media companies that they are above Parliament, above government and above the law. The Government agree with us that this is unacceptable, that enough is enough, and the only solution is to introduce laws to ensure that they maintain the highest standards of safety and content moderation.
“We also agree that the onus should be on the tech companies to remove harmful and abusive content, rather than the user to report it. We also want to see further progress to tackle misinformation and disinformation which acts to deliberately undermine our democratic processes and misinforms citizens. Our final report which is due to be published soon will make further recommendations in this area.”
Last year, the digital minister suggested that a deadline to speed up the removal of harmful content on social media was among the legislative measures being considered, which would compel sites to remove illegal content within 24 hours of it being reported, or face fines.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock will also meet Instagram officials on Thursday to understand how it is tackling harmful online content.