Sunday, June 26, 2022

Tech giants need to be more transparent about online harm, activists say

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Tech giants should be forced to share more data on the impact of their content with researchers and civil society so they can be properly scrutinized and no longer “hiding in the shadows,” activists say.

More than 40 charities, online safety activists and academics have signed an open letter to Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries urging them to amend the Online Safety Act to improve data-sharing provisions.

Activists argue that big tech companies “should not decide what evidence to release about the risks they are responsible for addressing” and say that the online safety law, in its current form, will continue to give companies control over which data is available for independent scrutiny and would still be able to “revoke access if they wish”.

Among the more than 40 signatories to the letter are Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen, academics from Oxford and Cambridge, and the chief executives of children’s charities Barnardo’s and NSPCC, who are announcing the bill to introduce sweeping content rules for social media other online platforms, for the first time operating in the UK should be further strengthened.

“For years, we’ve used data to hold tech companies accountable and track the true causes of online harm,” the letter reads.

“Our findings underpinned the development of online safety law, highlighting everything from Russian disinformation operations to anti-Semitic conspiracy theories and child grooming.

“But the data we can access is minimal. Organizations choose what we see and can revoke access whenever they want. As it stands, the Online Safety Act will not change that.”

Online Safety Bill is currently on its way through Parliament and campaigners are urging MPs to consider amendments to the bill to give Ofcom – which is set to be the new regulator for the tech sector – more powers to To help researchers and others keep platforms easier to take into account.

“It’s only through the revelations by whistleblower Frances Haugen that we know that Meta had data showing Instagram is harmful to teen mental health. The company buried the finds,” the letter said.

“The NSPCC and more than 50 children’s charities wrote to Meta requesting access to the full study, but the company declined. The family of Molly Russell, the 14-year-old who committed suicide after viewing harmful online content, is still waiting for Meta to disclose information relevant to her death.

“Companies should not decide what evidence to release about the risks they are responsible for managing.

“The bill should empower independently verified researchers and civil society to request data from tech companies. Ofcom should be required to publish guidance on how to access this data as soon as possible (months not years). This security review will hold these companies accountable and make the internet a less divisive, safer space for all.”

Activists say their proposed data access changes should also include additional privacy protections to address commercial concerns from tech companies and ensure no harm comes from the increased scrutiny.

“It’s not as difficult or economically ruinous as the platforms claim. The EU has already passed the Digital Services Act, making secret data from tech companies available to governments, academia and civil society to protect internet users,” they say.

“It is important that this is done in a way that protects privacy – an approach that we know can be replicated in the UK. Academic research and public-private collaborations have been key pillars in building the highly successful UK cybersecurity start-up ecosystem.

“The same can be done with the UK Safety Tech Sector, but only if there is greater visibility and understanding of online harm.”

The letter concludes by warning that unless the rules on data-sharing are changed, “governance making will be weaker and the UK will not be as secure as it could be”.

“We urge you to amend the law to speed up data sharing provisions and mandate Ofcom to provide guidance on how civil society and researchers can access data, not just when they should,” it said .

“This should happen within months and must respect user privacy. These changes would mean tech companies can no longer hide in the shadows.”

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