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'We can lead the way in curbing sinister, spiteful excesses of the internet age,' says Spalding-area MP Sir John Hayes

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In his weekly Hayes in the House column, MP Sir John Hayes discusses the new Online Harms Bill.

One of the most noticeable changes during my lifetime has been the disheartening debasement of public discourse. The internet, a place for posturing and posing, but rarely for genuine discussion and considered debate, must take much of the blame for this transformative decline.

But while the coarsening of the ‘national conversation’ is amongst the most obvious examples of the harm done by the internet, it is merely the tip of a dangerous iceberg. Beneath everyday superficialities lurks a growing crisis of disengagement, depression and decay, all of which are facilitated by tech companies that profit from exploiting insecurities, doubts and fears.

Sir John Hayes MP (52763507)
Sir John Hayes MP (52763507)

The internet is often presented as if it were simply the latest stage of revolution in communication stretching back through the telephone and telegraph to the first postal service. Though applications such as email can be seen as part of such a continuum, social media is something wholly new.

Tech companies do not exist to simply facilitate communication; rather, they control and manipulate virtual social interaction in ways that play on innate fears about standing and status. Increasingly, young people measure their value in terms of how many followers they have and how many ‘likes’ and comments their most recent post attracted. For a generation of addicts, one ignored post sparks doubts about status and abusive comments which can result in depression, misery and even suicidal thoughts.

Companies such as Facebook – or Meta, as we must, at the will of messianic Mr Zuckerberg, now call it – which also owns Instagram and WhatsApp, ruthlessly exploit their power over users to harvest vast quantities of data. Their business models depend on monetarising information, with little regard to how it may be used.

Until earlier this year Facebook (Meta) actually allowed advertisers to explicitly target underage children who had expressed an interest in smoking and gambling. Whistleblowing leaks by Francis Haugen reveal a company that is fully aware of the harm it is causing to the mental health of young people.

One leaked Facebook study found that 13.5% of teenage girls in the UK say that suicidal thoughts became more frequent after starting Instagram. Rather than expanding freedom, social media has turned billions of people into the unwitting pawns of powerful, greedy corporate interests.

Yet, like the American frontier of legend, the virtual world of the internet can be tamed. I know, because as a Home Office Minister I piloted through Parliament legislation that forced internet companies to retain data for scrutiny that could help expose terrorists, track down paedophiles and locate abducted children.

The Government has now published more much needed legislation to curb online harm. The new Bill aims to crack down on the various ways the internet is exploited for malevolent purposes – from the radicalisation of vulnerable people by terrorist groups through to protection from online bullying.

It will do so by establishing a new statutory duty of care, forcing companies to finally take responsibility for the safety of their users, with a new regulator empowered to take effective enforcement action. Greedy, careless tech conglomerates cannot be trusted to check themselves. There is a straightforward solution to this crisis that does not involve reinventing the wheel. Newspapers and broadcasters are already held to account for their own content as publishers. If those duties were to be extended to social media – responsible for the content they post and subject to legal action if they peddle harmful material – social media companies would be forced to ban anonymous accounts or take legal responsibility for the harm they do.

The Online Harms Bill is an opportunity for Britain to lead the way in curbing the specious, sinister, spiteful excesses of the internet age.

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