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Digby Jones: It’s time to take a stand

Voices | Published:

By Lord Digby Jones

(23912705)

SHE sat alone in her bedroom, in her World. The Screen was directing her, challenging her, coaching her, making her feel she belonged

... Controlling her.

It’d had been like this for weeks. Her fear of missing out had become unbearable, from all the posts and likes she saw as she took her hourly fix, everyone was having more, doing more, enjoying more than her. She felt excluded, but here, in her secret world, she belonged. She’d learned so much; she knew now she could do it. That’d give all those whose posts and likes made her feel so inadequate something to think about. She would matter at last.

She’d miss her parents and her brother but at last she could do something for herself, something they didn’t know about, it was a secret between her and her real friend, The Screen. She couldn’t wait to log on, to join her understanding family, to learn more about the ultimate power-grab.

And so, following the instructions on The Screen, she did what she knew she could only do once. A one-and-only grab at ultimate control...

...and her dad found her, lifeless, dead... and The Screen was still there, in mocking silence, chalking up another victim of social media.

And the bosses of social media expressed regret, extended sympathy, said they were doing much more to filter out ‘bad stuff’, but rejected responsibility. Refused to take the blame. A young life snuffed out, a family which would never be the same again – and the facilitators said ‘not me, guv’.

Whether it’s terrorism or paedophilia, pornography or self-harm, whether it’s appalling threats or disgraceful trolling, the social media barons, multi-billionaires and then some, assert that they provide platforms, they are not publishers – and thus have no responsibility. So, that’s all right then!

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This has to stop.

The editor of this newspaper and its owners carry responsibility for what appears in its pages, so why doesn’t Mr Zuckerberg have the same obligations for what appears on the screens of Facebook and Instagram?

If we are serious about preventing tragedy, decreasing the proliferation of the dangerous and the degrading, then the governments of the world should forcefully and immediately regulate social media: ‘we don’t care what you call yourself, Mr Zuckerberg, we call you a publisher... end of!’ And believe me, if the social media barons became personally liable in the same way as a newspaper editor or television or radio producer is, then this whole appalling situation would end overnight.

But those governments appear cowed. What influences their relationship with this new phenomenon? If you add up the value of Alphabet (Google’s parent company), Apple, Microsoft, Facebook and Amazon it comes to around $3.5 trillion. The GDP of the fifth largest economy on Earth, the UK, is $2.6 trillion. Germany (in fourth place) has a GDP of just under $4 trillion. These companies are so powerful that they have the trappings of, and behave in the manner of, corporate states. They talk to, and with, the governments of the world, as such.

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But when your personal data can be analysed, put through the wringer of an algorithm and sold to others without you knowing. When you are the reason why advertisers pay the social media barons so much. When you are the exploited target, subjected to personally directed advertisements over which you have no control nor for which have you received any reward. When the essence of your life is cut up and factualised every which way, without your knowledgeable consent, spread out to the four corners of the globe – then surely it is time for major and urgent change.

Let’s force social media platform owners and bosses to be treated – and be liable – as publishers.

Make them pay every person whose personal data they use and sell on – exploiting a share of the profit that’s made from what they do with what belongs to someone else.

Give the people what they thought they were getting: a friendly, trusted connector. Not a rapacious monster making obscene amounts of money out of the very people who trust them.

No amount of goodwill felt by the user towards Facebook or Instagram can excuse what’s going on; ‘leave them alone, they’re my friend’ doesn’t wash any more. Just ask that dad who found his daughter, dead in her bedroom, under his roof.

. Lord Digby Jones was director general of the Confederation of British Industry from 2000-2006 and Minister of State for UK Trade & Investment from 2007-2008. He understands he is the only UK minister there has ever been who did not belong to the party of government while serving. He serves as a cross-bench, non-aligned peer in the House of Lords.

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