Tech giants must be more transparent on online harms, campaigners say

17 May 2022, 12:54

Social media apps on a phone
Tech giants should be compelled to share more data about the impact of their content, campaigners have said (Nick Ansell/PA). Picture: PA

An open letter from a group of charities has called for the Government to amend the Online Safety Bill to compel more data sharing by tech firms.

Tech giants should be compelled to share more data about the impact of their content with researchers and civil society so they can be properly scrutinised and no longer “hide in the shadows”, campaigners have said.

More than 40 charities, online safety campaigners and academics have signed an open letter to Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries, asking them to amend the Online Safety Bill to improve data sharing provisions.

The campaigners argue that big technology firms “should not decide what evidence of the risks they are responsible for tackling gets made public” and say the Online Safety Bill, in its current form, will still leave companies in control of what data is available for independent scrutiny, and would still be able to “revoke access when they want”.

Among the more than 40 signatories of the letter are Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen, academics from Oxford and Cambridge, and the chief executives of children’s charities Barnardo’s and the NSPCC, who say the Bill, which is set to introduce broad content rules to social media and other online platforms operating in the UK for the first time, should be bolstered further.

“For years, we have used data to hold tech companies to account and track the true causes of online harms,” the letter says.

“Our findings have underpinned the development of the Online Safety Bill, highlighting everything from Russian disinformation operations, to antisemitic conspiracy theories and child grooming.

“But the data we can access is minimal. Companies get to decide what we see and can revoke access whenever they want. As it stands, the Online Safety Bill won’t change this.”

The Online Safety Bill is currently making its way through Parliament and the campaigners are urging MPs to consider amendments to the Bill to give more power to Ofcom – set to be the new regulator for the tech sector – to help researchers and others more easily hold platforms to account.

Facebook safety
Whistleblower Frances Haugen revealed secrets about Facebook’s operations in the UK (Kirsty O’Connor/PA)

“It was only through the revelations of whistleblower Frances Haugen that we know Meta had data showing Instagram is harmful for teenage mental health. The company buried the findings,” the letter says.

“The NSPCC and 50+ children’s charities wrote to Meta asking to see the research in full, but the company refused. The family of Molly Russell, the 14-year old who committed suicide after viewing harmful content online, is still waiting for Meta to disclose information relevant to her death.

“Companies should not decide what evidence of the risks they are responsible for tackling gets made public.

“The Bill should empower independently verified researchers and civil society to request tech companies’ data. Ofcom should be required to publish guidance as soon as possible (in months, not years) for how this data can be accessed. This safety check will hold these companies to account and make the internet a less divisive, safer space for everyone.”

The campaigners say their proposed data access amendments should also include additional privacy protections in response to any commercial concerns from tech firms, and to ensure no harm was caused by the increased scrutiny.

“This isn’t as hard, or commercially ruinous, as the platforms say it is. The EU has already passed the Digital Services Act, which opens up secretive tech company data to government, academia and civil society to protect internet users,” they say.

“Importantly, this is being done in a way that protects privacy – an approach we know can be replicated in the UK. Academic research and public-private collaborations were key pillars in establishing the UK’s wildly successful cyber security start-up ecosystem.

“The same can be done with the UK’s Safety Tech Sector, but only if there is greater visibility and understanding of online harms.”

The letter concludes by warning that without changing the rules around data sharing, “policymaking will be weaker and the UK will not be as safe as it could be”.

“We urge you to amend the Bill to accelerate the data sharing provisions, mandating Ofcom to provide guidance on how civil society and researchers can access data, not just if they should,” it says.

“This should happen within months and must account for user privacy. These changes would mean tech companies can no longer hide in the shadows.”

By Press Association

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