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Molly Russell’s father warns social media firms over harmful material

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He said tech companies had ‘absolutely failed’ to self-regulate and welcomed new legislation to govern online platforms.

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Facebook will not have a long-term future if it does not tackle the harmful material which can be found online, the father of a 14-year-old who took her own life has warned.

Ian Russell said there is not a tech-lash – or a backlash against technology firms, and there is not an overreaction amid public concerns over content.

He told reporters at the NSPCC’s How Safe Are Our Children? conference in central London: “I don’t think this is a tech-lash. I think this is being quite supportive of social media companies.

“It is important to acknowledge that they (tech firms) do a lot of good, but sadly their platforms are being used by people to do harm and they have not done enough to prevent that.

“Unless change happens, their platforms will become toxic. I don’t think there is, and it seems strange to say it with the might of Facebook now, a long-term future for them.

“I think that other less toxic platforms will evolve.

“I think it is for the sake of everyone who enjoys using the internet and social media platforms that we proportionately find ways to make sure the content on there is as safe as possible.”

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Molly Russell death
Molly Russell (Family handout/PA)

Mr Russell’s daughter Molly, from Harrow in north west London, was found to have viewed content on social media linked to anxiety, depression, self-harm and suicide before ending her life in November 2017.

Earlier this week, Sir Nick Clegg, Facebook’s head of communications, argued that people are at risk of “overreacting to the bad” aspects of social media and damaging its positive potential as a result.

Sir Nick, the former leader of the Liberal Democrats and deputy prime minister during the coalition government, was hired by the tech giant last year.

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Nick Clegg now works for Facebook (Gareth Fuller/PA)
Nick Clegg now works for Facebook (Gareth Fuller/PA)

Mr Russell accepted that tech companies may face technical problems and difficulties in resolving issues.

He said firms which “continue to be slow and at least partially ineffective” in removing content would be lining themselves up to “see what a tech-lash is”.

He said: “I think people will be more and more angry.

“Companies who advertise on their platforms think people will be less inclined to spend their money, and those advertising on the tech platforms will want bigger and stronger assurances that if they do advertise, it will not be placed against inappropriate harmful content.

“I think their whole business model needs to be revised for their sake and for our sake.”

He also thought that “innovation should be encouraged, but it can not be done at the expense of human life”.

Noting that health and safety rules apply to different walks of life, he said that “if their platforms are in some way encouraging people to end their lives then we really have to think very hard about what can and can’t be allowed”.

Mr Russell told the conference that his daughter’s story is “a modern-day nightmare for families and parents in this country because it is really hard for us to know how to protect our children online today”.

He said tech companies had “absolutely failed” to self-regulate and welcomed new legislation to govern online platforms.

On the suggestion that oversight boards could be formed to provide rules for what is safe online, he said there should be an independent body and made up of a cross-section of advisers such as charities, academics and others with wide-ranging experience and input on the issue.

He added: “The funding for this board should come from tech companies, probably from a levy charged on their profits – but it should not be directly from the companies just for reasons of good governance.”

He acknowledged there “will always be problem material on the internet” and said it is why vigilance us always needed.

Andy Burrows, the NSPCC’s head of child safety online policy, said: “Nick Clegg needs to realise that what he may dub a ‘tech lash’ is in fact a justified and legitimate concern over children’s safety.

“Tech firms need to clean up their sites and there’s no reason why they cannot do that now, before regulation is introduced.

“And a company the size and scale of Facebook has the resources and the capacity to ensure that this is a priority.”

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