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Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Outrage cannot make the web safer, warns Ofcom chief after criticism from Paul Dacre

Dame Melanie is hiring 150 new tech and cybersecurity staff at a new hub in Manchester to help the regulator become the “Red Adair” of big tech regulation, in reference to the firefighter who extinguished oil well blazes with explosives. 

However, she said the new laws would not mean regulating individual pieces of content because the “sheer volume would make that impractical ”, but will hold companies accountable over how they use “algorithms, address complaints and ensure a safe experience for children”. 

“We won’t act as a censor, prevent robust debate or trample over users’ rights,” she added.

“Free speech is the lifeblood of the internet. It is a foundation of democratic society, at the heart of public life, and a value that Ofcom holds dear.

“Instead, our job will be to lift the ‘vague and cloudy uncertainty’ that hovers over search and social media.”

Her comments come as Nadine Dorries, the culture secretary, rode to the defence of the permanent secretary Sarah Healey, who was also attacked by Mr Dacre through a letter in The Times. 

Referencing Ms Healey, Mr Dacre wrote: “Senior civil servants working from home so they can spend more time exercising on their Peloton bikes and polishing their political correctness, safe in the knowledge that it is they, not elected politicians, who really run this country.”

In her first appearance in front of the culture committee, Ms Dorries said: “There are many male permanent secretaries who went for their jog each morning, or for their cycle ride, or walked their dog. Nobody had anything to say about that.”

We must expose tech’s algorithms and regulate social media properly

By Dame Melanie Dawes

Three years before she composed the first modern algorithm, Ada Lovelace pondered the potential for machines to master games like chess and solitaire. If a computer could achieve such a feat, where might this lead?

“I see nothing but vague and cloudy uncertainty,” she confessed. “Yet I discern a very bright light a good way further on.”

For all her visionary brilliance in 1840, not even Lovelace could foresee algorithms becoming the hand that guides people’s travel, shopping and entertainment. More than that, they define our modern experience of being online, fuelling what we see in search results and on social media.

Algorithms have personalised the internet, created new business opportunities, and given ordinary people the power to speak to large audiences. Through their ability to target online advertising, they have also fuelled the rapid rise of trillion-dollar tech giants.

But too often, companies appear to have prioritised growth over the safety of their users. By designing their services to maximise reach, they may have inadvertently promoted harmful content: bullying or harassment, hate speech, self-harm. They may not be quick enough to tackle terrorism or sexual abuse.

Today, when people spend a quarter of their waking day connected with the internet, safety matters as much online as it always has in the home, school or workplace. Six in 10 connected adults – and eight in 10 older children – have had at least one harmful experience online in the past year. Most people support tighter rules.

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