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The violence in Washington shows the government must bring tech giants into line

If they are serious about protecting free expression, online platforms must be far more transparent about what content they do take down - and why, writes Lord Puttnam. | PA Images

4 min read

Government must hold online platforms accountable for the content their algorithms promote and empower citizens to assert their rights online. This would support our democracy instead of undermining it.

This week’s events in Washington brought into stark relief the UK governments failure to address a key recommendation of the House of Lords Select Committee Report on Digital Technology and Democracy.

The government’s Online Harms White Paper consultation response, published before Christmas, fails to make any mention of a ‘duty of care’ towards democracy itself.

With Covid-19 continuing to cause untold misery across the world, healthcare professionals and other key workers are doing their utmost to help people through this uniquely difficult time. Their efforts are however being undermined by an increasing spread of harmful misinformation online. Conspiracy theories regarding the origin of the virus alongside false cures are encouraging people to damage their own health and endanger those around them.

This misinformation flows through the same networks that spread lies during elections and undermine the public’s faith in democracy. The roots of this crisis started long before the current virus and result from a decade of wilful inaction. Facebook, Google and others have allowed these counterfeit truths to flourish on their platforms. At the same time, government has failed to get to grips with the pace of technological change and the transformative challenges and opportunities it presents.

Technology is not a force of nature and online platforms are not inherently ungovernable. They can and should be bound by the restraints that we apply to the rest of society. Government’s proposals for a ‘duty of care’ to tackle online harms offers a positive way forward, but DCMS has taken so long to add detail to these proposals that the seriousness of this government’s continued commitment has to be questioned.

In June; the Committee on Democracy and Digital Technologies published its report setting out detailed proposals for how to bring technology platforms back in line with the public’s expectations and values.

The gavotte played out between successive governments and the technology industry has gone on far too long and its effect is beginning to undermine all of us.

Government has failed to get to grips with the pace of technological change and the transformative challenges and opportunities it presents

The time has come for government to up its game and intervene.

A first step would be to hold platforms accountable for the content their algorithms promote. The sheer scale of any platform is no excuse for its failure to act against content spreading rapidly through the network or via creators with particularly large audiences. These platforms cannot become the arbiters of what constitutes free speech.

The companies argue that they have no control over the content their systems recommend, but that simply isn’t true. Platforms make any number of algorithmic design decisions without adequately testing their effects. Our Committee heard evidence of Google suggesting to its users that Muslims do not pay council tax, along with credible accusations of it reducing the voices of LGBT+ users on YouTube.

Platforms should be obliged to audit the decisions they make when altering their algorithms to ensure that they are not harmful to particularly vulnerable users.

In attempting to head off regulation, platforms describe this indifference to harm as the best way to protect people’s freedom of expression online. However, this fails to reflect the reality that these corporations prioritise cost reduction over enforcing even their own rules.

We heard descriptions of posts being taken down arbitrarily, and perceptions of platform bias. If they are serious about protecting free expression online platforms must be far more transparent about what content they do take down - and why. There is clearly a growing need for a ‘digital ombudsman’ to whom individuals can appeal if they believe platforms have acted unjustly towards them.

Citizens should also be empowered to assert their rights online. Digital media literacy must be firmly embedded into the curriculum to ensure that, from a young age, children are taught about how platforms work, and are equipped to become active digital citizens. The system at present is rather like showing a child how to ride a bicycle but forgetting to teach it the highway code. There must be requirements on companies to design platforms that increase rather than further confuse user understanding and choice.

The government should immediately push through legislation, so that digital technology supports our democracy instead of undermining it. Doing so would help restore public trust at a time when all our energies should be devoted to tackling an unprecedented range of complex challenges.


Lord Puttnam is a Labour member of the House of Lords and chair of the House of Lords Select Committee on Digital Technology and Democracy.

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