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Science & Technology Series: Expert Comment

Dr David Haynes says regulation alone is insufficient to protect online users

The Royal Academy of Engineering Research Fellow in the Department of Library & Information Science (CityLIS), comments on the liability of social networks for the content published in their platforms.
by John Stevenson (Senior Communications Officer)

The debate around making social media platforms such as Instagram and Facebook responsible for the content they publish has intensified following the death of 14-year old Molly Russell.

The teenager committed suicide in November 2017 after viewing social media content linked to depression, self-harm and suicide.

Her father, Ian Russell, believes that Instagram (owned by Facebook) played a role in her death, and blames the algorithms used by that platform for enabling her to view harmful content.

Response to risk

Thrown into sharp relief are the contending interests of the government, threatening to redefine the roles of internet companies with powerful global reach if they don’t act voluntarily to protect the interests of young people, and the internet companies arguing that they cannot “be held to an expectation of perfection”.

Dr David Haynes, a Research Fellow in the Department of Library & Information Science (CityLIS) says regulation on its own is unlikely to bring resolution to the issue:

“There is an understandable urge to do something about social media when faced with tragedies like the death of Molly Russell. Making social media providers liable for the content they carry would be like making telecoms companies responsible for the content of telephone conversations.  Far better to concentrate on building the resilience of young people and providing support for those in distress. Research suggests that regulation alone is insufficient to protect online users.”

Dr Haynes, part of the first cohort of UK Intelligence Community postdoctoral research fellows supported by the Royal Academy of Engineering believes “the law should concentrate on the individuals who post hateful and destructive content, not the providers of infrastructure services.”

Research funded by the Royal Academy of Engineering at the Department of Library and Information Science at City, University of London is looking into issues of online safety in order to get a better understanding of online risk to individuals and appropriate responses to that risk.

Dr Haynes' current research is focused on online risk and ways in which predictions of user behaviour can improve online public safety.

He is also the tutor for the Information Management and Policy module of the Library and Information Science programme at CityLIS.

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