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Should the internet be policed? And if so, by who?

This article is over 5 years, 2 months old
High profile cases have pushed internet regulation up the political agenda, but Simon Basketter says it isn’t the answer
Issue 2641
Much of the mainstream media is talking up the need for more internet regulation to protect young people
Much of the mainstream media is talking up the need for more internet regulation to ‘protect’ young people (Pic: Socialist Worker)

Political consensus is a bad thing. Both the Tories and Labour are now publicly committed to regulating the internet.

The Tories announced they would produce a white paper later this month. It will set out how they intend to deal with tech giants—social media platforms—that do not deal with harmful material in the way they want.

Labour, via deputy leader Tom Watson, said it will bring in an internet regulator.

There will be a period of consultation where many will call for the big platforms to accept the responsibility of being publishers. The big tech firms will admit they could do better and donate large amounts of cash as they try to get the best deal possible for themselves.

Daft as it seems that is why former deputy prime minster Nick Clegg is the spin doctor for Facebook.

The campaign to toughen up on the social giants now has a new face—Molly Russell.

It is said she was influenced by self-harm pictures and posts on social media before ending her life, aged 14, in 2017.

“I have been deeply moved by the tragic stories that have come to light this past month of Molly Russell and other families affected by suicide and self-harm,” wrote Instagram chief executive Adam Mosseri.

So Instagram plans to introduce “sensitivity screens” to hide some images, which sounds like a euphemism for a blur “layer” the user has to click through to get to provocative content.

But there is more here than a politician or web boss’s soundbite. The pressures on young people are immense and real.

There are some anomalies in the statistics. But at its simplest, you are more likely to die by suicide if you are poor and over 24.


A Prince’s Trust study found that young people increasingly felt “panicked” looking at sites. They told of an “overwhelming pressure” to compete with friends and present a successful image of themselves.

Less noted was that 63 percent of under-25s told the study they felt anxious about their future due to the uncertain economic climate, while 53 percent feared they would never be financially stable. When these factors were combined, the trust found that wellbeing and optimism among young people was at a low.

In that context it is not surprising that people find ways for sharing the pain as well as the artificial joy on social media platforms.

Perhaps even more damaging than self-harm images are countless apps such as Facelab which—for only £5.99 a month—offer the chance to touch up selfies and reshape bodies to make them insta-worthy.

Big business rakes in profit selling distorted images of ourselves produced by algorithms built on the data they took off us. But the state is not an independent actor—controlling our data.

The internet doesn’t cause suicide any more than it causes knife crime, fascism or left wing rebellions.

The censors looking to police the internet are driven by the desire to maintain capitalist norms as much as the tech firms. When Tom Watson promises “immediate steps” to prevent interference in elections, cyber-attacks and disinformation campaigns, we should be wary to say the least.

This doesn’t mean siding with the corporations.

But in the long term, attempts to make social media giants responsible for content on their platforms will end up being used primarily against us.


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