We have to recognise that the technology companies that now pervade everyday life will need a very different kind of regulation in the years to come. I was delighted to meet representatives of the Centre for Humane Technology from the United States this week.
They had a very good analogy. They were looking at various tech scandals around the world and made the point that sometimes, when we look at those symptoms, they are hurricanes, but the addictive technology at the centre is actually more akin to climate change.
What we need to do as a legislature is figure out how to introduce a new regulatory regime that will control that climate change. As Tim Berners-Lee, the World Wide Web’s inventor, said: “Social networks – they are man-made. If they are not serving humanity, they can and should be changed.”
Nearly 30 per cent of children who spend more than three hours on social network sites show symptoms of poor mental health; that is compared with just 12 per cent of children who spend no time on social network sites. It is becoming increasingly obvious to all of us that there is some link between the use of social media, the overuse of social media and, frankly, the mental illness epidemic among many of our young people.
We are also beginning to see significant differences in the ways in which people from different income groups relate to social media. I think that it was Ipsos that this week published research showing that children from better-off families use social media for three-and-a-bit hours less than those from poorer families, and of course there are differences in the way it is used.
With regard to the most dangerous end of the spectrum, we have seen how social media and addictive technology are used to hook children on gambling, particularly casino-style gambling, and to engage children in suicide games, such as the Blue Whale challenge, which has been linked to 100 teenage deaths in Russia.
It is no surprise that earlier this year 50 psychologists in America wrote an open letter accusing many of their colleagues of unethical behaviour in advising technology companies on the misuse of addictive tech. If we compare that problem, which is becoming increasingly well defined, with the sort of social contract that we expect from social media firms, we start to see a gulf emerge.
I looked at figures for the taxes paid by social media firms. It is remarkable how most of the big tech firms in this country are paying very low rates of tax – 1.5, 5, 6 or 10 per cent at best.
That is a long way below even our low levels of corporation tax. Unless we begin to change the tax regime and the regulatory regime, this problem will become more pronounced.
The Government need to step up to their responsibilities First, Ministers should look closely at the recommendations that have been made by by those on the Labour front bench who have called for a duty of care to be placed on social media companies.
If I bought a chunk of land, built a stadium and put loads of people in it, I would quite rightly be held to some pretty rigorous health and safety legislation. If I build a virtual forum, where I put loads of people, there are no obligations on me whatsoever.
We need to ensure that there is a duty of care, which is rooted in some tried and tested legislation that goes back to the early 1970s. We need to ensure that the social media firms are understanding and analysing the dangers that their work can pose to their customers. We need them proactively to put in place measures to ameliorate that risk. That needs to be auditable and punishable with significant fines if these firms fall short of their obligations.
I think that it is possible for an individual nation state to take action against these companies. That is what we see with the “NetzDG” law in Germany. One in six Facebook moderators work in Germany, which should not surprise any of us. There is a €50m fine if companies in Germany do not take down hate speech within 24 hours and wipe out all illegal content within seven days.
I think it is possible for individual countries to introduce domestic regulations that can have a material effect, both on the safety of our fellow citizens and on the behaviour of some of these big companies. If the Government do not do it, we parliamentarians will have to try to build an international coalition for responsible tech.
If we are to maximise the degree of predictability and certainty for the business world and others, there is a good case for setting out a bill of digital rights for the 21st century.
That would include all sorts of useful things, for example enshrining the right to privacy – enshrined in Article 8 of the European Charter of Fundamental Rights – and action on algorithmic justice. It could also include some of the initiatives, devices, techniques and legislative approaches, such as the duty of care legislation.
If we want a set of principles that can withstand the test of time, and underpin the reform and re-reform of this sector over the course of the 21st century, we will have to work hard to build that cross-party consensus not only in this country, but around the world.
Liam Byrne is a Labour MP who spoke in a Parliamentary debate on addictive technology. This is an edited version. He is a former Chief Secretary to the Treasury.