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The violence in Washington shows the government must bring tech giants into line


Government must hold online platforms accountable for the content their algorithms promote and empower citizens to assert their rights online. This would support our democracy instead of undermining it.

This week’s events in Washington brought into stark relief the UK governments failure to address a key recommendation of the House of Lords Select Committee Report on Digital Technology and Democracy.

The government’s Online Harms White Paper consultation response, published before Christmas, fails to make any mention of a ‘duty of care’ towards democracy itself.

With Covid-19 continuing to cause untold misery across the world, healthcare professionals and other key workers are doing their utmost to help people through this uniquely difficult time. Their efforts are however being undermined by an increasing spread of harmful misinformation online. Conspiracy theories regarding the origin of the virus alongside false cures are encouraging people to damage their own health and endanger those around them.

This misinformation flows through the same networks that spread lies during elections and undermine the public’s faith in democracy. The roots of this crisis started long before the current virus and result from a decade of wilful inaction. Facebook, Google and others have allowed these counterfeit truths to flourish on their platforms. At the same time, government has failed to get to grips with the pace of technological change and the transformative challenges and opportunities it presents.

Technology is not a force of nature and online platforms are not inherently ungovernable. They can and should be bound by the restraints that we apply to the rest of society. Government’s proposals for a ‘duty of care’ to tackle online harms offers a positive way forward, but DCMS has taken so long to add detail to these proposals that the seriousness of this government’s continued commitment has to be questioned.

In June; the Committee on Democracy and Digital Technologies published its report setting out detailed proposals for how to bring technology platforms back in line with the public’s expectations and values.

The gavotte played out between successive governments and the technology industry has gone on far too long and its effect is beginning to undermine all of us.