The Online Safety Bill must live up to its name
Frances Haugen forensically put forward a devasting picture of how Facebook puts “profit over people”. The long awaited Online Safety Bill must curb the unfettered power of the tech sector and prioritise child safety.
“Facebook's products harm children, stoke division and weaken our democracy”, so said Frances Haugen to Congress as she laid a litany of wrongdoing in front of an unusually united, bipartisan group of Senators. A tech insider bringing years of product design to the issue and armed with evidence from Facebook’s own research, she forensically but forward a devasting picture of a company that puts “profit over people”.
Sadly, her testimony confirmed rather than surprised. 5Rights Foundation Pathways research only two months ago found that Instagram targeted accounts with self-harm, pornography, extreme diets and suicide material, despite them being registered to children. Facebook’s response was "we don’t allow that material on our service” and “the methodology was wrong,”. This was remarkably similar to their response to the current leaks, and bewildering since in both cases the evidence proved the contrary. But the most extraordinary part of the Senate hearing was not the revelations but the realisation that the last rites were being given to a discredited era of tech self-regulation.
This leaves the world watching how the government’s long awaited Online Safety Bill will wrestle back childhood, public discourse, and democracy. The Bill’s fundamental premise is that tech companies, just like all other companies, have a duty of care to those they engage with. Moreover, that duty is greater when the user is a child—a premise which finds favour with 90 per cent of UK adults.
Facebook peddles false choices between safety and privacy
There are those who cast doubt on the possibility of maintaining the right to free speech whilst making the digital world safe, but as Frances Haugen pointed out, Facebook peddles false choices between safety and privacy, or pretending that the problems of its platform, or other tech companies, are insoluble.
Binary terms and supposedly insoluble problems are convenient evasions for those who make billions of dollars out of spreading discord, harm and hate at scale because the solutions put forward by researchers and product designers interrupt the mantra of growth at any cost. The real cost of evading the issue is the mental health and wellbeing of a generation, and in some tragic cases the life of a child.
When I first introduced the notion of a standalone data protection regime for children it unveiled the wrath of the sector’s lobbyists and resulted in a well organised, well-funded campaign of whispers casting doubt to whomever would listen, including government.
Data protection this good would “break the internet”, they would move the HQ, it would disadvantage the UK market and it would hinder free speech. Yet this summer, the same companies introduced a slew of previously unimaginable changes in order to comply with the Age Appropriate Design Code as it came into force. These included the end to revealing the exact location of a child, high privacy by default, safe search for under 18’s, stopping adult stranger private messaging children, turning off auto play, behavioural advertising, and changes to age assurance systems with no accompanying catastrophe.
But just like the factory acts of the 19th century that introduced child labour laws – arguably the beginning of modern childhood – we cannot rely on only a single data protection law to curb the excess, unfettered power, and unchecked greed of the tech sector.
So even as we make strides in children’s privacy, we must look to the Online Harms Bill to ensure their safety. Risk assessments, mandatory codes of practice, safety by design, algorithmic oversight, director liability, and a duty of care for users are all doable, necessary, and mandatory for ensuring the digital world children deserve.
Later this month Frances Haugen will give evidence to the Joint Committee scrutinising the Online Safety Bill, with her message that “Facebook puts its astronomical profits over people”. Her bravery in stepping forward gives us yet another urgent reason to ensure the Online Safety Bill lives up to its name.
Baroness Kidron is a crossbench peer.
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