Paul Vallelly: Big tech firms must be held to account

15 March 2019

The Molly Russell case shows the need for action, argues Paul Vallely

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ALTHOUGH Tory politicians claim that austerity is now over, the impact of public-spending cuts continues. We see that every day in our hospitals, youth clubs, and care for the elderly. But it is also clear from public events. Even so, the news that there would be no legal aid for the family of Molly Russell — the 14-year-old who took her own life after viewing self-harm and suicide material on Instagram — was shocking (News, 8 February).

The Legal Aid Agency ruled first that it was not in the “wider public interest” for the taxpayer to pay for a lawyer for the family during the inquest into her death — where the big tech companies would doubtless be represented by top barristers. On Tuesday, it relented.

This decision came just as the inventor of the world wide web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, issued a warning to mark the 30th anniversary of its launch. He spoke of the web’s “downward plunge towards a very dysfunctional future”. Sir Tim is alarmed at the spread of what he calls “nastiness and misinformation”. He highlighted fake news, harassment, and increasing aggression on social media.

Of course, the internet has brought huge benefits. It brings the world into our homes. It is a massive library, supermarket, bank, cinema, and doctor’s surgery. It is a forum for public debate and a way of holding politicians to account. Families use its free-of-charge video facilities to keep in contact around the world. Like any tool, however, its use can reflect the darker side of human nature, with hacking, trolling, online fraud, and all the rest.

It is interesting to contrast the libertarian nature of the internet in the West with the authoritarian versions that we see in the East, particularly in Russia and China. It reveals the clear dangers in allowing governments to control the web. Yet there is a balance to be struck between untrammelled freedom and totalitarian control.

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Tech companies need to be made more accountable, and there are signs in countries such as Germany that this is beginning to happen. The idea that Google and Facebook are merely platforms that have no responsibility for the material which they carry is increasingly being challenged.

But some action is also needed to address the way in which internet algorithms feed content to us. There are some benefits, to companies and consumers, in targeting adverts so that we receive only material that interests us. But these same systems are being exploited by the unscrupulous — as the Cambridge Analytica scandal showed — nefariously to influence elections and undermine democratic processes. Measures are also needed to check state-sponsored hacking and electoral manipulation, as well as criminal behaviour.

Hardware and software companies also need to be challenged over the issue of who owns data. Molly Russell’s parents have been told that they cannot access data on their daughter’s iPhone and iPad which might give vital evidence about how she was persuaded to kill herself by individuals or websites that need closing down. That is clearly in the wider public interest. So, the Legal Aid Agency was right to reverse its decision.

But that is only the first step. Governments need to think of balanced measures to regulate a world web that has become a Wild West.

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