Social media must take responsibility

The Bednar family suffered unimaginably following the death of their 14 year old son Breck in 2014. He was groomed online, raped and then murdered. When I first met Breck’s father Barry and his mother Lorin La Fave, their anguish was clear to see. The family’s deeply traumatic experience has continued in the years following Breck’s murder. Most recently, their daughter Chloe has received sick online messages purporting to be from Breck’s killer, recounting in graphic detail her brother’s murder.

Sending such messages is a criminal offence, under the Malicious Communications Act 1988. The messages were sent over Snapchat. From replies I have received from Snapchat enquiring about this case, it is clear that Snapchat holds data identifying the user account and critically the device from which the messages were sent. Yet Snapchat refuses to provide this kind of vital information to the UK Police upon request. They hide behind their terms and conditions, which require UK law enforcement officials to get court orders and navigate a bureaucratic process under a “Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty” with the US – taking an average of 10 months.

This is a disgrace. Snapchat’s policy is obstructing justice and preventing the Police from doing their job. I call on Snapchat to immediately release information to the Police where is it reasonably requested as part of a criminal investigation. If Snapchat – and other social media companies – continue to take an obstructive approach, then the Government should legislate. Social media companies operating in the UK should be made subject to a quick and simple process to require them to disclose information to our law enforcement agencies where there is a legitimate need for it.

There is a clearly a wider problem with harmful online content. The law has not kept pace with technology. The tragic suicide of Molly Russell, also at the age of 14, is a case in point. Instagram pushed content towards Molly that talked about self-harm, and in her father’s view contributed to her death by doing so. After her death, Instagram refused to give Molly’s parents access to her accounts that might have answered some of their questions.

These companies need to take responsibility. They have some of the most sophisticated technology in the world that filters and targets content, usually with the purpose of making more money for themselves. They could easily use this technology to suppress harmful content, but have chosen not to. In many cases, they have actively promoted harmful material to vulnerable people. It is no longer acceptable for online platforms to deny responsibility for third party content, when they are the ones that promote that same content based on their users’ perceived interests. Whether it’s content promoting violent terrorism or content promoting self-harm, online platforms should be required to actively suppress it.

The Government’s imminent white paper on “Online Harms” is a seminal opportunity to make the internet safer and to protect society. MPs from across the political spectrum should work together to support this work in the coming months. I will certainly be one of them. It is the least we owe Breck and Molly.

This article originally appeared in The Times Red Box on 06/03/2019. You can view the original article here –