At the recent Parliament & Internet Conference techUK Deputy CEO Antony Walker spoke alongside Rt Hon Maria Miller MP, Lord Macdonald QC, and Criminal Law Commissioner, Professor David Ormerod QC on a panel focusing on tackling online abuse. One of the key takeaways from the panel was that online abuse is a multifaceted issue that can only be effectively tackled through a co-ordinated approach between Government, law enforcement, civil society and industry.
The former Prime Minister, David Cameron, hit the nail on the head at the landmark WEPROTECT conference in 2014, when he said “we can only win if we fight together”. That day, international governments joined industry and civil society in agreeing a joint approach to tackle the worst kind of online abuse - online child abuse. This has to be the mantra for tackling all online abuse. Tackling online abuse is a complex issue that requires a blend of social, legal and technical solutions, which requires a wide range of stakeholders to work in harmony – government, schools, NGOs, law enforcement and technology companies.
Technology companies care about the wellbeing of their users. That’s why they see tackling online abuse as a moral obligation and take it extremely seriously. In fact, it is perhaps the central concern for many techUK members who operate in this part of the sector. This genuine concern, twinned with a recognition that it requires a joint social response, has led companies to develop effective partnerships with leading academic and civil society experts, along with government and law enforcement, to keep users safe online.
Broadly speaking, tech companies tackle online abuse in three ways – developing norms for acceptable online speech, creating technical solutions, and supporting law enforcement:
Developing norms for acceptable online speech
Tackling online abuse requires educating individuals both as to what is appropriate online behaviour and also how to stay safe online and avoid abuse. All the UK’s major internet companies and providers have developed strict community guidelines and fully tailored Safety Centres in partnership with leading experts. These are designed to provide extensive information and education to help keep users safe. Facebook also has an international Safety Advisory Board which provides expert guidance to the company as it continually evolves its response to online abuse. Promoting and reinforcing these codes helps to change behaviour by tackling abusive behaviour at its root.
There are also world-leading cross-sector initiatives such as Internet Matters, an educational resource providing support for parents, schools and children on how to keep children safe in the digital world, founded by ISPs, Google and the BBC, and supported by NSPCC, CEOP, Childnet and others. Additionally, tech companies including Facebook, YouTube, Microsoft and Twitter signed the EU Code of Conduct on illegal online hate speech in May 2016, committing to tackle to tackle illegal hate speech online. This Code includes the continual development of internal procedures and training to ensure maximum removal of illegal hate speech in less than 24 hours; strengthening partnerships with civil society organisations to flag content that promotes incitement to violence and hateful conduct; and identifying and promoting independent counter-narratives and supporting educational programs that encourage critical thinking with more than 200 government, academic, legal and charity organisation in this area.
The sector has a unique role to play in developing technological solutions to weed out online abuse. These are continually being developed but include: Instagram’s new keyword moderation tool which automatically blocks comments with certain keywords to protect users from abuse. Twitter is developing a similar solution. Harmful content is removed from search engines in partnership with fantastic organisations such as the Internet Watch Foundation, and parental controls such as Google Safe Search and family friendly network level filtering are easily available by the four main Internet Service Providers. Reporting tools are also available on all social media platforms to flag abusive speech online.
Supporting law enforcement
The UK’s leading tech companies all work closely with law enforcement to help them catch perpetrators of illegal online speech acts. When warrants are served on internet companies, they are fully compliant, while balancing these requirements with safeguarding the privacy of their users. In terms of reforms to the law, technology companies support tough sentences for online abuse. As a sector, we are fully supportive of the recent reforms announced by the Crown Prosecution Service that will increase prosecutions for abusive online speech acts.
The sector has come a long way over the past decade to tackle the phenomenon of online abuse. It is hugely complex and the sector has done an excellent job on tackling many child safety issues, in particular. However, the sector recognises that new forms of hate speech are developing all the time and so we are taking many of the successes from tackling child issues to the issue of broader online abuse.
But the key message is that technical solutions to tackling online abuse are only a small part of the solution – it’s a broader social issue that requires close partnership between government, industry, NGOs and law enforcement. As Baroness Shields put it so effectively, “It’s about working together with the best brains in the tech industry and pioneering new ways of making the Internet safer”.
More information is available on techUK's Child Online Safety activities.