MPs make urgent call for social media regulator

Written by Nicholas Mairs and Sam Trendall on 31 January 2019 in News

An independent watchdog for online firms should be established ‘as soon as possible’, a select committee has concluded

The government should establish an independent regulator for social media and other internet firms as a matter of urgency, a select committee has found.

A report from the cross-party Science and Technology Committee called for an end to the “loose patchwork of regulation and legislation” around major websites and instead demand a "comprehensive regulatory framework" with "a strong sanctions regime".

The current “standards lottery”, MPs said, means sites such as YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and search engines such as Google and Bing are not currently the subject of specific regulation.

"This would mean establishing a regulator to provide guidance on how to spot and minimise the harms social media presents, as well take enforcement action when warranted," the report said.

Committee chair Norman Lamb added: "We concluded that self-regulation will no longer suffice. We must see an independent, statutory regulator established as soon as possible, one which has the full support of the Government to take strong and effective actions against companies who do not comply. This approach does nothing to encourage the protection of younger users online. It is imperative that we take every step to protect young people online as we do offline.”

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The creation of a dedicated social media regulator was mooted last year in the responses to a government green paper on internet safety. That consultation process is part of an ongoing work to draw up an Online Harms white paper, which will set out a range of legislative proposals. The paper is expected to publish in the coming weeks.

The committee also said that social media companies should be made to share data with researchers in a bid to better understand sites' harmful effects and protect their users. Firms must work with academics as part of an enforced “duty of care” that can help identify those at risk and improve current online safety measures.

The MPs said it was “not good enough” that organisations had “openly refused” to share anonymised data with researchers who are trying to get to the bottom of their effects on young people's health and wellbeing.

They said a lack of cooperation from tech firms meant that hard evidence on the positive and negative impacts of their use remains “frustratingly” low – although social media has “facilitated” a rise in issues including bullying, grooming and ‘sexting’.

Furthermore, National Crime Agency figures revealed that referrals from the National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children had “increased by 700%” over the last four years.

Lamb, who is the Liberal Democrat MP for North Norfolk, said firms had a responsibility to help tackle the “very real harms our young people face in the virtual world” where data protection laws allow, but that they seem in “no rush" to offer crucial information.

“We understand their eagerness to protect the privacy of users but sharing data with bona fide researchers is the only way society can truly start to understand the impact, both positive and negative, that social media is having on the modern world,” he said.


About the author

Nicholas Mairs is a news reporter for PublicTechnology sister publication PoliticsHome, where a version of this story first appeared.


Sam Trendall is editor of PublicTechnology


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