Social media firms have failed to crack
downn on “violent, insidious and criminal” content and should be regulated, says a police chief who has become the first to publicly back a statutory duty of care.
Mike Cunningham, head of the College of Policing, the professional body for all officers, said the firms could no longer be trusted to self-regulate and voluntarily prevent dangerous material appearing online such as the terrorist live streaming of the New Zealand mosque massacre.
He compared it to handing people a weapon but then failing to take responsibility for how it was used. “Just as when you sell someone a weapon, you would expect them to think what adverse use could be made of that,” he said.
“It’s incumbent on those who invented this technology, who generate these things and make a lot of money from it to fulfil their social responsibility.
“I would support regulation. The issue of self regulation – of persuading, of cajoling, of trying to influence people – appears not to have been successful to date. It looks to me like it will have to take a formal intervention. I would support a statutory duty of care.”
Mr Cunningham, a former HM Inspector of Constabulary and chief constable, is the first senior officer to back legislation to rein in social media firms.
The Government is expected to unveil its White Paper plans for a statutory duty of care on the tech giants within the next two weeks. The Daily Telegraph has been campaigning for such a duty to better protect children from online harms.
Mr Cunningham’s comments come after a week when Instagram and Snapchat were criticised for failing to hand over data to police investigating the trolling of the family of Breck Bradnor, a boy murdered by a paedophile, and the role of self-harm sites in the death of Molly Russell, 14.
Facebook and YouTube have also faced worldwide condemnation for their response to white supremacist Brenton Tarrang live streaming his murder of 50 worshippers at two mosques and their failure to prevent widespreading sharing of his video and hate-filled manifesto.
Mr Cunningham said that while social media could offer “fantastic opportunities for edification”, it was also “at times violent, graphic and insidious.”
“There are some vulnerable people out there and there are some cruel people out there. Sometimes when they connect virtually it has catastrophic consequences and surely there are things that can be put in place to protect the vulnerable people.
“If the firms are enabling all of this to happen then they should have responsibility for the consequences of that. I am sure they could do more to inhibit bad behaviour, criminality and vulnerability.
“There are ways in which they ought to have immediate alerts around the generation and sharing of images. Take the fact that someone was able to livestream an attack in the way it was in Christchurch.
“The companies are clever enough to develop ways of communicating so they must be clever enough to think of ways in which they cannot be communicated. They have a responsibility to not be seen to be party to this.”
On knife crime, Mr Cunningham said there needed to be both a short-term “surge” of extra officers in hotspots as planned but also a strategic review of how police handled the rise of serious violence in the longer term.
He said cuts in neighbourhood policing had damaged forces’ ability to prevent crime by restricting the gathering of intelligence and building relations with communities.
But he warned the answer was not simply to put more bobbies on the beat: “There’s an insatiable appetite for visible policing from the public. I think it requires a longer look at the capabilities that are required to meet future problems.
“This requires things like people with analytical digital skills, it requires people who have an understanding of the causes of vulnerability, people who can work with other partners.
“Of course, it does require more boots on the ground in terms of local and neighbourhood policing but part of the case for building a capable workforce for the future is a clear understanding of future challenges.
“That will require a much clearer understanding of how the digital and social media worlds play into criminality and anti-social behaviour, how in order to detect crimes we need a greater awareness of digital forensics, and how you build up proper forecasting and use biometrics.”
He said the Prime Minister needed to take the lead in developing a co-ordinated response to knife crime: “This requires a very concerted long-term strategic approach that does need to be pulled together by either the PM or by someone who has been delegated by her to do that.”
And he proposed an expansion of police section 60 emergency stop and search powers so officers could respond more rapidly to outbreaks of violence in clearly-defined areas and without the requirement to have reasonable grounds to stop a suspect.
This would allow an inspector, rather than a commander or assistant chief constable, to take the decision, a recommendation he made when he was an HM Inspector two years ago.
“Sometimes a situation will develop quickly on the ground where some close to that needs to make a decision. Someone of the rank of assistant chief constable or commander might not be available. You need to allow people on the ground to make those decisions,” he said.