Suicide prevention minister: Tech firms need to tackle Wild West online world

Companies will be held to account for tackling a comprehensive set of online harms Credit: Dominic Lipinski/PA

Social media platforms need to clamp down on internet trolls and harmful content to stop the “Wild West” nature of the internet, the country’s first suicide prevention minister has said.

Jackie Doyle-Price said tech giants such as Google, Facebook and Twitter should put more emphasis on removing worrying content like hurtful comments and self-harm videos in order to create a less toxic online environment.

And she said she wanted to see a “cultural change” which would mean online trolling would be deemed as socially unacceptable as drink-driving.

The Conservative MP for Thurrock told the Press Association: “They (social media platforms and tech companies) need to be vigilant about content they’re hosting.

“From my perspective, there should be the same standards of content protection that exist in newspapers and other publications – ultimately they can remove content that causes harm.

“They have a cultural ethos which allows user-generated content and they have their own rules and terms and conditions, but I want them to be much more vigilant.

“It’s great that we have these platforms for free speech and any one of us is free to generate our own content and put it up there, but free speech is only free if it’s not abused.

“I just think in terms of implementing their duty of care to their customers, the Wild West that we currently have needs to be a lot more regulated by them.

“I want to see much more active moderation.”

A consultation is currently under way over how to make users safer on the internet.

The Online Harms White Paper proposes establishing a new duty of care towards users, overseen by an independent regulator.

Companies will be held to account for tackling a comprehensive set of online harms, ranging from illegal activity and content to behaviours which are harmful but not necessarily illegal, the Government said.

Failure to fulfil this duty of care will result in enforcement action such as a company fine or individual liability on senior management.

Ms Doyle-Price, who was appointed to the new role of suicide prevention minister in October 2018, said those who disagreed with her or who had concerns about freedom of expression should raise those worries in the consultation, which runs until July 1.

She added: “Freedoms can only be enjoyed if people are responsible with them.

“I’m afraid we have come to tolerate behaviour online which we would not be tolerated in the streets.

“My overall objective is to get to a place where the environment online is as safe as physically. Ultimately we all as users have a role to play in that.

“I often compare it with drink-driving. For 30 years, it was entirely socially acceptable to get in your car after having three or four pints and driving home.

“That was socially acceptable despite being illegal. Today, society just wouldn’t tolerate that, they would have a very dim view of people prepared to take that risk with other people’s lives.

“I’d like to see that same culture change with online activity as well. If people go on and post abuse just because they can, I think we across society should make it clear we don’t find that acceptable.”

Protesters outside the YouTube Space near King’s Cross Station Credit: Ryan Hooper/PA

Social media companies and the Government have been under pressure to act following the death of 14-year-old Molly Russell in 2017. The schoolgirl’s family found material relating to depression and suicide when they looked at her Instagram account following her death.

Ms Doyle-Price has been among those present when social media companies have been summoned to Whitehall for behind-closed-doors meetings with ministers and campaigners in an effort to tackle online harms.

The maiden summit in February resulted in Instagram agreeing to ban graphic images of self-harm from its platform.

Last week, a group of female anti-knife crime campaigners staged a protest outside the London offices of Google and YouTube, accusing the companies of having “blood on their hands” due to concerns harmful content glamorising violence was not removed.

Youth worker Lucy Martindale said a YouTube regional director subsequently agreed to sit down with campaigners in the coming weeks to address their concerns.

Ged Flynn, chief executive of suicide prevention charity Papyrus, said the public consultation was “vital”.

He added: “Too many families lose a child to suicide after researching method online.

“Suicide, the leading cause of young deaths in the UK, is always complex, but online access to dangerous information about suicide and self-harm clearly makes things worse for many young vulnerable minds.

“Social media adds another layer of access to risk.

“Parents and carers have every right to expect Government and the internet industry to help keep their children safe online.”