Child using a smartphone at night

Tech giants urged to protect youngsters or face criminal action

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Online technology giants must remove “harmful” algorithms directing youngsters to “suicide chatrooms” or risk hefty fines and criminal action, the culture secretary has said.

Nadine Dorries told social media firms to act now before the Online Safety Bill appears before MPs early in 2022.

Her remarks came after Labour’s Richard Burgon highlighted the case of Joe Nihill, a 23-year-old former Army cadet from Whinmoor, Leeds, who “took his own life after accessing so-called suicide forums”.

Burgon, the Leeds East MP, praised Nihill’s family for running an “inspirational campaign” to ensure others do not experience similar tragedy, adding a “firm message” needs to be sent to the tech giants that “they will now have to take action to remove these suicide forums which prey on vulnerable people”.

Dorries replied in the Commons: “Those online platforms, those online giants, they have the ability right now today to remove those harmful algorithms that do direct children and young people to suicide chatrooms.

“I call upon them to start that work now because if they don’t, this Bill will be here in the new year and they will then be subject to huge fines and possibly criminal action.”

The legislation is expected to force the biggest technology firms, such as Meta (formerly Facebook) and Google, to abide by a duty of care to users, overseen by Ofcom as the new regulator for the sector.

SNP MP Owen Thompson (Midlothian) earlier said: “A Facebook whistleblower recently revealed that hateful political ads are five to 10 times cheaper for customers in what has been referred to as subsidising hate. Facebook have since banned companies from targeting ads based on users’ political belief, sexual orientation or religion.”

Thompson noted it is “a government’s job to regulate”, asking: “What proposals could the government take to take account of the views of the whistleblower calling for further action to bring forward more action to end subsidising hate online?”

Dorries replied: “The examples that he has just highlighted, I am very confident every one of them will be legislated for in the regulations framework, which will be given to Ofcom to regulate those online platforms once the Bill becomes law.”

The slow-moving Online Safety Bill had a somewhat protracted evolution before the draft bill was finally published in May this year.

Yesterday, TikTok, one of the biggest social media platforms, unveiled a series of updates to its safety measures designed to better protect young people on the platform, following a major report into how its users interact with potentially harmful content. The move was seen as a proactive step towards independently tightening up safety on its platform, before the impending Online Safety Bill becomes law and can stipulate requirements.

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