Theresa May speaks at WEF 2018

Tech giants must step up on social responsibility, Theresa May demands

Image credit: REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

Speaking today at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland, UK Prime Minister Theresa May has put pressure on tech companies, telling them to take responsibility for the social impacts of their products.

May’s vocal criticism comes amid a continuing backlash against social media and other internet companies, whose platforms have been used to spread hate speech, abuse, deliberate misinformation and violent content, including material by white supremacist and Islamist groups intended to radicalise young people.

Over the past year, politicians and other leaders have criticised tech companies for failing to prevent the posting of live videos containing murders and suicides, neo-Nazi material inciting violence, misinformation generated by Moscow-backed users attempting to influence the 2016 US presidential election and other abusive and threatening material.

In November 2017, misleadingly captioned videos posted by Jayda Fransen, leader of the far-right political party Britain First, were retweeted by US President Donald Trump. This lead to widespread condemnation from May and other world leaders. When Twitter subsequently began enforcing stricter rules forbidding abusive content, Fransen’s account was suspended.

At Davos, May will come face-to-face with Trump for the first time since their spat over his retweeting of Fransen’s videos.

May – who joined other world leaders in criticising social media platforms for their passivity in the face of reports of abusive and violent content at the UN in September 2017 – repeated that these companies must take social responsibility.

Unless they take serious actions to remove inappropriate material, they could become known as “the terrorists’ platform” or “the first-choice app for paedophiles”, she warned. This could include tech giants to direct their “brightest and best” towards finding means of preventing this material ever surfacing.

“Technology companies still need to go further in stepping up to their responsibilities for dealing with harmful and illegal online activity,” she said. “These companies simply cannot stand by while their platforms are used to facilitate child abuse, modern slavery or the spreading of terrorist and extremist content.”

The Prime Minister acknowledged the far-reaching positive impacts of technological progress - in particular, artificial intelligence - mentioning the use of machine learning in healthcare and a recent incident in which drone technology was used to help save the lives of two drowning children.  

“Technological advances continue to revolutionise the possibilities for humanity and we must have the international frameworks in place to ensure that everyone can benefit from them,” said May. People are concerned about technological unemployment and the misuse of technology to do harm.

The UK government will work together with businesses in order to ensure that technological advances may continue to be made while minimising damaging consequences, she said. Uber, for instance, should be able to continue to transform the transport sector, while it also addresses its much-publicised institutional failures.

These technology companies must earn the public’s trust by actively taking social responsibility, she said.

May also called on investors to help ensure that tech companies are forced to consider the social impact of their services, such as when Facebook shareholders called on the company to provide more information about hate speech and sexual harassment on the network, or when Apple shareholders demanded that the company invests in how to protect its users from technology addiction.

Yesterday at Davos, Marc Benioff, the billionaire founder and CEO of Salesforce, spoke critically about the social impact of tech giants. The tech sector today is facing a crisis in trust similar to that faced by the financial sector during the financial crisis of 2018, he said. He called for the social media sector to face regulation, much like the tobacco industry does today.

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