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PUBLISHED: 19:50 03 February 2019

West Suffolk MP Matthew Hancock

West Suffolk MP Matthew Hancock

Archant

It’s time to take to task the world’s biggest Internet companies, says David Powles.


Claudiu Cristea, 18, from Norwich but originally from Romania, took his own life after watching suicide videos online. Picture: Cristea familyClaudiu Cristea, 18, from Norwich but originally from Romania, took his own life after watching suicide videos online. Picture: Cristea family

Since becoming a father six years ago I’ve realised there’s a whole host of things that could be placed under the headline ‘every parents worst nightmare’.

But the story which made our front pages earlier this week regarding the death of teenager Claudiu Cristea must rank up their with one of the worst things imaginable for a family to have to go through.

The 18-year-old took his own life by walking into the water at Whitlingham Broad after watching online videos promoting suicide.

At the hearing the coroner told of her concerns at how easy it had been for him to access such material online and through social media, a message that was echoed at the weekend by the teen’s devastated parents. They have my heartfelt thoughts and sympathies.

Coincidentally the inquest came in the very same week one of our own MPs, and health secretary, Matt Hancock wrote to several social media companies calling on them to ‘purge’ the type of content Claudiu was so easily able to access.

That letter was sent out after father Ian Russell spoke about how Instagram ‘helped’ to kill his 14-year-old daughter Molly, who was also able to access inappropriate material, without the knowledge of her family.

Hancock’s message is one I would wholeheartedly agree with.

It seems crazy that only now are we properly starting to have a debate about how much responsibility, or otherwise, big online names like Google, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and others have for what they enable people to access.

Given the internet is not exactly what you’d call new anymore and the dangers that lurk within the so-called dark web have been well publicised for many years, I can’t believe its taken so long for serious questions to be asked about the influence these multi-billion pound firms have.

For too long they have been able to hide behind the claim they are not ‘publishers’ of content and therefore the responsibility for what people search for and discover on their sites lies with the individual.

However, if I, as editor of this newspaper and our website, decided that from tomorrow we’d populate our sites with all sorts of horrible content, but buried so that it can only be found through our searches, there would quite rightly be outrage. It’s something we simply wouldn’t do as responsible publishers.

And that’s what these search engine and social media companies are. Publishers, plain and simple, and therefore they should be treated as such.

What frustrates me most is that it’s well within their powers to do something – if they really wanted to.

Internet giants have such state-of-the-art technology they could detect and wipe away inappropriate content instantly. It wouldn’t even need a human touch to do such a thing.

So why don’t they?

Unfortunately I think it’s a perfect case of money talks. If page views and clicks mean cash, they want them, no matter what the cost to the ‘customer’. They’ve no loyal, local custom base to worry about, unlike your average newspaper editor.

Now this issue has been brought to the fore I’d like to see the government take an even harder line than just sending a letter asking, ever so nicely, if they wouldn’t perhaps mind toning it down a bit.

I’d like to see the web overlords given a deadline by which certain types of content has to be inaccessible from their sites. If they don’t they get a hefty fine or maybe even a threat of closure.

Will that happen? Probably not. Every politician is no doubt fully aware by now the power such companies wield in the modern world.

How far our politicians are prepared to go to take them on, therefore, remains to be seen.

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