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Brexit could help make sure tech giants curb online abuse, says committee

Ministers were urged to legislate to shift liability for illegal content on to social media and other internet companies.

Brexit could make it easier to ensure online media companies take more legal responsibility for curbing “persistent, vile and shocking abuse” suffered by politicians and public figures, the official ethics watchdog has said.

The Committee on Standards in Public Life urged ministers to legislate to shift liability for illegal content on to social media and other internet companies to tackle an “intensely hostile online environment”.

Facebook, Twitter and Google “are not simply platforms for the content that others post” because they play a role in shaping what users see, and so “must take more responsibility for illegal material”.

They are not liable “largely” due to a European Union directive which treats them as “hosts” of online content but Theresa May’s commitment to leaving the single market means the Government can introduce new laws to make companies responsible, the watchdog said.

The report on intimidation in public life, commissioned by the Prime Minister, said social media was “the most significant factor” driving harassment, abuse and intimidation of 2017 general election candidates, which included threats of violence and sexual violence, as well as damage to property.

“Some have felt the need to disengage entirely from social media because of the abuse they face and it has put off others who may wish to stand for public office,” the report said.

“Not enough has been done. The committee is deeply concerned about the limited engagement of the social media companies in tackling these issues.”

Committee chairman Lord Bew said the “increasing scale and intensity of this issue demands a serious response”.

“We are not alone in believing that more must be done to combat online behaviour in particular and we have been persuaded that the time has come for the Government to legislate to shift the liability for illegal content online towards social media companies,” he said.

Twitter officials said abuse has no place on the social media site (Dominic Lipinski/PA)

The committee was also “deeply concerned” about the failure of Facebook, Twitter and Google to collect data on their processes for reporting and taking down illegal content.

“Their lack of transparency is part of the problem,” the report said.

“None of these companies would tell us if they collect this data and do not set targets for the time taken for reported content to be taken off the platform.

“This seems extraordinary when their business is data-driven in all other aspects.”

The committee urged online companies to put in place automated techniques to identify intimidatory content while the Government should set up a “trusted flagger” social media reporting team during general elections so abuse and intimidation could be dealt with more quickly.

Lord Bew said: “This level of vile and threatening behaviour, albeit by a minority of people, against those standing for public office is unacceptable in a healthy democracy.”

Twitter’s UK head of public policy Nick Pickles said: “Abuse and harassment – no matter the victim – have no place on Twitter.

“As the report notes, our team uses technology to proactively find abusive content and provides users with a single report that they can email to the police.”

Action was being taken on 10 times the number of accounts each day compared with last year, with restrictions or suspensions placed on “thousands more” abusive accounts.

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