But sanctions have to be more than 'slap on the wrist,' says politician
A DUP MP who has faced a torrent of vile abuse on social media has welcomed new proposals for extending the powers of Ofcom to force the likes of Facebook and Twitter to act on harmful content.
The UK Government is to appoint the broadcasting regulator as a new internet watchdog, with the ability to fine social media companies that do not protect users.
The move was announced as part of the government's response to a report on harmful online content which recommended duty of care laws for some internet companies.
Carla Lockhart said it was an "important day" but getting the detail right on how the new system operates was crucial with "a token slap on the wrist" not enough to protect users.
She said: “For too long the world of social media has been like an online Wild West, with no regard for what little rules exist, restricted enforcement of the inadequate rules, and an increasing culture that there is no accountability for what is said and done on these sites for either to perpetrator or the platform.
"There is no control. Effectively, self regulation has failed."
Ms Lockhart has called for action against internet bullies and trolls.
She has talked in the past about how if she had a vote for every time someone told her to ignore abuse directed at her own social media feeds, she would top the poll at every election.
After DUP leader Arlene Foster tweeted a picture of the pair enjoying a night out at a party function there was a torrent of abuse directed at the politicians.
Ms Lockhart - a councillor and MLA over the past decade - said she had become accustomed to the abuse and trained herself to ignore it.
"But I am a wife, a daughter, an aunt and a sister," she wrote in an article for the Belfast Telegraph.
Her family and friends have been forced to delete accounts because they didn't want to see the abuse meted out to her. Most of the abuse was about her being a woman - and on her appearance, she said.
She said criticism of DUP policy was fair but she was more often than not on the end of "sinister and nasty abuse".
"Some dismiss me raising this as a symptom of the so-called 'snowflake generation'.
"I accept that sticks and stones can break bones, but a steady abusive social media drip can break through the thickest skin."
My own experience of keyboard warriors is well knownCarla Lockhart
The government has suggested Ofcom would have the responsibility of making sure online companies have the systems and processes in place to fulfill the duty of care to keep people using their platforms safe.
Platforms will need to ensure that illegal content is removed quickly and minimise the risk of it appearing, with particularly strong action needed on terrorist content and online child sexual abuse.
"My own experience of keyboard warriors is well known," Ms Lockhart said following Wednesday's announcement.
"For many years I have been the target of personal attacks online, mainly by anonymous accounts but also by those who happily use their own identity safe in the knowledge that nothing will be done.
"I am far from alone in being subjected to such abuse. These people seem empowered to say things online that they wouldn’t say on the street.
"That culture has to end. Having made repeated complaints to social media companies about this, I found their reaction slow and falling well short of what would be expected. This complacency has to end."
Future legislation, the government has said will protect freedom of expression by not targeting or punishing individuals who access content which is legal, but may be offensive.
Instead, the proposals suggest that “companies will be required to explicitly state what content and behaviour is acceptable on their sites in clear and accessible terms and conditions, and enforce these effectively, consistently and transparently”.
A token slap on the wrist will not be enough to protect usersCarla Lockhart
The government said the proposed legislation will only apply to companies that allow the sharing of user-generated content – such as images, videos and comments.
Internet giants including Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram are seen as the main targets of the proposed new rules, which are part of government plans to make the UK the “safest place in the world to be online”.
Ms Lockhart continued: "Key to the success of this move will be the sanctions that Ofcom will be able to apply. A token slap on the wrist will not be enough to protect users and it is vital that regulators are empowered with the ability to impose serious fines and penalties on social media companies.
"I will be pursuing this with the government in the coming days and will continue to press the case for greater responsibility from social media companies.”
Ofcom has announced the appointment of a new chief executive, civil servant Dame Melanie Dawes, as part of its preparation for a new, wider role.
Interim chief executive, Jonathan Oxley, said: “We share the Government’s ambition to keep people safe online and welcome that it is minded to appoint Ofcom as the online harms regulator.
“We will work with the government to help ensure that regulation provides effective protection for people online and, if appointed, will consider what voluntary steps can be taken in advance of legislation.”
Responding to the proposals, Facebook’s head of UK public policy, Rebecca Stimson, said: “Keeping people safe online is something we take extremely seriously. We have clear rules about what is and isn’t allowed on our platforms and are investing billions in safety.
“Over the last few years we’ve tripled the size of our safety and security team to 35,000 and built artificial intelligence technology to proactively find and remove harmful content.
“While we recognise we have more to do, our regular transparency reports show we are removing more and more harmful content before anyone sees it and reports it to us.
“We look forward to carrying on the discussion with Government, Parliament and the rest of the industry as this process continues.”