MPs Increase Pressure on Social Media Firms

dcms select committee

Calls overshadow Twitter’s new rules to combat abuse.

This weekend saw MPs amplify their calls for tech firms to become more accountable for online abuse.

The offensive began on Friday 3rd November when a committee from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport announced that they had contacted Twitter’s CEO Jack Dorsey, asking for data on the relationship between Russian accounts and UK politics. Then on the Andrew Marr Show on Sunday, Home Secretary Amber Rudd warned tech companies that they are still not doing enough to combat the ‘exponential’ growth in child sexual exploitation online.

Rudd, who is undertaking a trip to the United States to meet peers to discuss the issue, called for online sexual abuse against children to be tackled at a, “far greater pace”, across the technology industry.

The Home Secretary said: “We’ve seen the real growth of child sexual exploitation internationally, and we’re going to make sure that we work with the Americans to take action against it. We need to make sure [tech firms] put their technical know how into addressing it. Particularly working with smaller platforms where children go to game online, to meet each other; there are paedophiles working there.

“We need to make sure that internet companies work with us, in partnership, to change this.”

Rudd’s declaration follows government figures which show a 700% increase in the number of indecent images identified on tech companies’ servers and flagged to law enforcement agencies in the last four years. The numbers also detail that more than 400 arrests for possession of indecent images of children are made per month and some 500 children are being protected from sexual exploitation in the UK alone.

Twitter’s Revised Rules

The Home Secretary and the select committee’s calls overshadowed Twitter’s revamped rules, also revealed at the weekend. In a bid to curb the groundswell of criticism that has engulfed the site over the last few months, Twitter has released new regulations it claims reflect the, “latest trends in online behaviour”. The largest section of these new rules focusses on ‘abusive behaviour’, and extends beyond violence to child sexual exploitation and ‘unwanted sexual advances’.

In its policy section on child sexual exploitation, Twitter explicitly states that it will remove images of or accounts promoting the sexual abuse of children, “without further notice”. The firm also states that it will report any child sexual abuse it discovers to The National Centre for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC).

Twitter’s preface to the abusive behaviour rules reads: “We believe in freedom of expression and open dialogue, but that means little as an underlying philosophy if voices are silenced because people are afraid to speak up. In order to ensure that people feel safe expressing diverse opinions and beliefs, we prohibit behaviour that crosses the line into abuse, including behaviour that harasses, intimidates, or uses fear to silence another user’s voice.”

Government Oversight

Whether these new regulations will dissuade Rudd and the Conservative Government from pursuing hardline policies against social media giants remains to be seen. The parliamentary committee from the DCMS demanded that Twitter hand over lists of ‘Russian-related’ accounts that may have ‘interfered’ in the democratic processes of the UK.

The committee’s Chairman, Damian Collins, has apparently written to Twitter’s CEO Jack Dorsey, asking for information on the relationship between Russian accounts and UK politics. According to The Guardian, Collins has given Twitter a deadline of the end of November to provide the data.

The call was made after Sean Edgett, Twitter’s Acting General Counsel, conceded to a US Congress inquiry that the company had unearthed thousands of Russia troll accounts, engaged in sharing material about American politics. Edgett claimed that Twitter had traced 2,752 accounts to the Internet Research Agency, an ‘operations influence’ (troll) company, which sent out 1.4 million messages in just two months.

Collins reportedly wrote: “It has subsequently emerged that some of these accounts were also posting content that relates to the politics of the United Kingdom. Any interference by foreign actors in the democratic process of the United Kingdom is clearly a serious matter.

“I would therefore ask that Twitter provides to the committee a list of accounts linked to the Internet Research Agency and any other Russian linked accounts that it has removed and examples of any posts from these accounts that are linked to the United Kingdom.”

This mounting pressure follows Culture Secretary Karen Bradley’s introduction of the ‘Internet Safety Strategy’ in mid-October. This was a drive to curtail the, ‘host of new dangers,’ that young people face online. While the policy is expected to be laid out fully next spring, social media firms are expected to be the among the main targets of the campaign.

Bradley explained: “The internet has provided young people with amazing opportunities but has also introduced a host of new dangers which children and parents have never faced before. We want to understand the full scale of the problem and explore how everyone – including Government, social media companies, technology firms, parents and others – can play their part in tackling it.”



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