Is Sajid Javid the man to take on the tech giants?

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Standing in the British Library, the home secretary set out a bleak image of the dangers posed by the internet.

He said: “Millions of young and vulnerable people in the UK leave behind the protection and supervision when they go online to a place that is a hunting ground for monsters where child abusers are trawling.

“There are gangs that lure young people into violence, there are terrorists who groom new recruits.”

Sajid Javid is a father of four children. He has three teenagers and a nine-year-old.

Websites face being blocked in UK by new ‘online harms’ regulator

Web companies that fail to protect users will be fined

Meeting him after his speech, I was keen to find out whether he has home rules for tech for the children. He does. Screen time is restricted.

Age limits for social media accounts are strictly adhered to and technology is banned from the bedroom at bedtime. Devices remain on chargers in the kitchen overnight.

“I’m not pretending it’s easy because I think it’s hard for any parent,” he said. “As they get older you have to try and manage it as best you can.

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“If you look at where children have been abused and groomed it’s often where they seem safe in their bedrooms, but they’re actually not because they’re online.

“I want them to benefit from the online world and I’m the first to admit there are many benefits to social media and other apps and things, and I don’t mind them playing the odd game. I understand that, of course.

The NSPCC has called on social media companies to do more to protect children

Image: The home secretary has home rules for tech for his four children

“But I’m really worried, especially with what I’ve seen as home secretary, about the danger that lurks online. Like anyone, I want to protect my children, but as home secretary I want to help protect everyone’s children.”

Regulating the internet in your own home is hard enough – doing it for the country seems like an almost impossible job.

In speech at the British Library, Mr Javid said to tech companies: “I warned you and you didn’t listen.”

It’s true, despite warnings they have failed to self-regulate. So what makes him think they will listen this time and respond to his rules?

It depends really on two things – firstly, how severe the rules are, and secondly how enforceable those rules are.

On the first front, Mr Javid is suggesting he won’t hold back.

Companies that don’t remove harmful material within a certain time-frame could face heavy fines. He says these will depend on global turnover.

Molly Russell

Image: Schoolgirl Molly Russell took her own life after viewing harmful content on Instagram

Something like a 4% turnover fine on Google would amount to billions of pounds.

Furthermore, non-compliant domains could be named and shamed. More controversially, serious offending websites could be blocked in the UK and individual managers could face prosecution.

Mr Javid won’t commit to time-frames on when all this will happen but he hopes he can change the mindset of these companies in the meantime.

He complains that in some cases they are not even thinking about the dangers.

He gives the example of the recent live-streaming of the massacre in Christchurch, New Zealand.

“With Christchurch, certainly I think there were some channels that didn’t put enough effort into taking down some of that abhorrent material – particularly the live-streaming of the terrible massacre, a 17-minute video.”

He adds: “What really troubles me is that when I spoke to the companies in Paris last week at the G7, they told me that they hadn’t really prepared for a live-streaming of a terrorist incident. Now, I found that quite shocking.

“Just about six months ago I was talking about the live-streaming of child sexual abuse, which sadly has grown and grown. So how can these companies not have thought about live-streaming of a terrorist event?”

But how a regulator will decide when a company becomes responsible for this kind of content is a tough question. And will any legislation have teeth?

Sajid Javid told Sky News he was shocked by the Christchurch live-stream

Image: Mr Javid told Sky News he was shocked by the Christchurch live-stream

It’s argued that the big established brands will out-lawyer the government – especially over issues that may concern free speech, while small companies could be stifled by the regulation.

One thing against the tech giants though, is the shifting of public mood.

The issue of websites failing to protect children from self-harm and suicide advice have hit home.

The stories of Molly Russell, who took her own life six days before her 15th birthday in 2017 after viewing self-harm and suicide material on Instagram, and others appear to have pricked the consciousness of some executives.

The home of self-harm was not a good look for Instagram.

This photograph taken on May 16, 2018, shows a figurine standing in front of the logo of social network Facebook on a cracked screen of a smartphone in Paris

Image: Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg claims to be calling out for more regulation on harmful content

So, Mr Javid has some wind in his sails on this for now – but will he stick with it through the pushback? Or will politics move on? Will he move on?

In my interview he, of course, didn’t rule out running to be the next prime minister.

Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg claims to be calling out for more regulation on issues such as harmful content and election campaigning – yet he failed to appear before a UK parliamentary committee when called.

The danger is that the tech industry nods for now and resists later, when the political mood weakens.

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