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Twitter announces global change to algorithm in effort to tackle harassment | Technology

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Twitter is announcing a global change to its ranking algorithm this week, its first step toward improving the “health” of online conversations since it launched a renewed effort to address rampant trolling, harassment and abuse in March.

“It’s shaping up to be one of the highest-impact things that we’ve done,” the chief executive, Jack Dorsey ,said of the update, which will change how tweets appear in search results or conversations. “The spirit of the thing is that we want to take the burden off the person receiving abuse or mob-like behavior.”

Social media platforms have long struggled to police acceptable content and behavior on their sites, but external pressure on the companies increased significantly following the revelation that a Russian influence operation used the platforms in coordinated campaigns around the 2016 US election.

Facebook and Google have largely responded by promising to hire thousands of moderators and improve their artificial intelligence tools to automate content removal. Twitter’s approach, which it outlined to reporters in a briefing on Monday, is distinct because it is content neutral and will not require more human moderators.

“A lot of our past action has been content based, and we are shifting more and more to conduct,” Dorsey said.

Del Harvey, Twitter’s vice-president of trust and safety, said that the new changes were based on research that found that most of the abuse reports on Twitter originate in search results or the conversations that take place in the responses to a single tweet. The company also found that less than 1% of Twitter accounts made up the majority of abuse reports and that many of the reported tweets did not actually violate the company’s rules, despite “detract[ing] from the overall experience” for most users.

The new system will use behavioral signals to assess whether a Twitter account is adding to – or detracting from – the tenor of conversations. For example, if an account tweets at multiple other users with the same message, and all of those accounts either block or mute the sender, Twitter will recognize that the account’s behavior is bothersome. But if an account tweets at multiple other accounts with the same message, and some of them reply or hit the “heart” button, Twitter will assess the interactions as welcome. Other signals will include whether an account has confirmed an email address or whether an account appears to be acting in a coordinated attack.

With these new signals, Harvey explained, “it didn’t matter what was said; it mattered how people reacted.”

The updated algorithm will result in certain tweets being pushed further down in a list of search results or replies, but will not delete them from the platform. Early experiments have resulted in a 4% decline in abuse reports from search and an 8% drop in abuse reports in conversations, said David Gasca, Twitter’s director of product management for health.

This is not the first time that Twitter has promised to crack down on abuse and trolling on its platform. In 2015, then CEO Dick Costolo acknowledged that the company “sucks at dealing with abuse and trolls”. But complaints have continued under Dorsey’s leadership, and in March, the company decided to seek outside help, issuing a request for proposals for academics and NGOs to help it come up with ways to measure and promote healthy conversations.

Dorsey and Harvey appeared optimistic that this new approach will have a significant impact on users’ experience.

“We are trying to strike a balance,” Harvey said. “What would Twitter be without controversy?”





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Santa Clarita Principles could help tech firms with self-regulation | Technology

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Social networks should publish the number of posts they remove, provide detailed information for users whose content is deleted about why, and offer the chance to appeal against enforcement efforts, according to a groundbreaking effort to provide a set of principles for large-scale moderation of online content.

The Santa Clarita Principles, agreed at a conference in the Californian town this week, were proposed by a group of academics and non-profit organisations including the Electronic Frontier Foundation, ACLU, and the Center for Democracy and Technology.

They are intended to provide a guiding light for tech companies keen on self-regulation, akin to similar sets of principles established by other industries – most famously the Asilomar principles, drawn up in 1975 to regulate genetic engineering.

The principles are made up of three key recommendations: Numbers, Notice, and Appeal. “Companies should publish the numbers of posts removed and accounts permanently or temporarily suspended due to violations of their content guidelines,” the first principle advises.

Currently, only YouTube provides such a report, of the major content sites, and in less detail than the principle recommends: it calls for information including the number of posts and accounts flagged and suspended, broken down by category of rule violated, format of content, and locations, among other things. YouTube’s content moderation transparency report revealed the company removed 8.3m videos in the first quarter of 2018.

The second principle, Notice, recommends that “companies should provide notice to each user whose content is taken down or account is suspended about the reason for the removal or suspension.

“In general, companies should provide detailed guidance to the community about what content is prohibited, including examples of permissible and impermissible content and the guidelines used by reviewers.” Many companies keep such detailed guidelines secret, arguing that explaining the law lets users find loopholes they can abuse.

In 2017, the Guardian published Facebook’s community moderation guidelines, revealing some examples of how the company draws the line on sex, violence and hate speech. Last month, almost a year later, Facebook finally decided to publish the documents itself. Mark Zuckerberg said the publication was a step towards his goal “to develop a more democratic and independent system for determining Facebook’s community standards”.

Finally, the principles call for a right to appeal. “Companies should provide a meaningful opportunity for timely appeal of any content removal or account suspension.” Most companies allow for some sort of appeal, in principle, although many users report little success in overturning incorrect decisions in practice.

Instead, observers have noted that the press has increasingly become an independent ombudsman for large content companies, with many of the most flagrant mistakes only being overturned when journalists highlight them. Twitter, for example, “is slow or unresponsive to harassment reports until they’re picked up by the media,” according to Buzzfeed writer Charlie Warzel.

Facebook’s Zuckerberg has said he wants a more explicit appeals process. “Over the long term, what I’d really like to get to is an independent appeal,” he said, in an interview with Vox. “So maybe folks at Facebook make the first decision based on the community standards that are outlined, and then people can get a second opinion.

“You can imagine some sort of structure, almost like a supreme court, that is made up of independent folks who don’t work for Facebook, who ultimately make the final judgment call on what should be acceptable speech in a community that reflects the social norms and values of people all around the world.”

Neither Facebook, Google nor Twitter commented for this article.



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Twitter urges all users to change their password after bug discovered | Technology

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Twitter has urged its 336 million users to change their passwords after the company discovered a bug that stored passwords in plain text in an internal system.

The company said it had fixed the problem and had seen “no indication of breach or misuse”, but it suggested users consider changing their password on Twitter and on all services where they have used the same password “as a precaution”.

“We are very sorry this happened,” said Twitter’s chief technology officer, Parag Agrawal, in a blogpost. “We recognise and appreciate the trust you place in us, and are committed to earning that trust every day.”

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We recently found a bug that stored passwords unmasked in an internal log. We fixed the bug and have no indication of a breach or misuse by anyone. As a precaution, consider changing your password on all services where you’ve used this password. https://t.co/RyEDvQOTaZ


May 3, 2018

Companies with good security practices typically store user passwords in a form that cannot be read. In Twitter’s case, passwords are masked through a process called hashing, which replaces the actual password with a random set of numbers and letters that are stored in the company’s system.

“This allows our systems to validate your account credentials without revealing your password,” said Agrawal. “This is an industry standard.”

“Due to a bug, passwords were written to an internal log before completing the hashing process. We found this error ourselves, removed the passwords, and are implementing plans to prevent this bug from happening again.”

Agrawal advises people to change their passwords, enable two-factor authentication on their Twitter account and use a password manager to create strong, unique passwords on every service they use.





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Shares in Snapchat owner plummet as redesign hits results | Technology

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Shares in Snapchat’s parent company have hit a record low after its results revealed the cost of a backlash against a redesign of the social messaging app.

Snap’s share price fell 22% to $10.96 (£8.05) in early trading as investors reacted to ongoing concerns over its struggle to compete with Facebook and its subsidiary Instagram.

Snapchat started its first major redesign late last year and by February more than 1.2 million users had signed a petition calling for it to reverse the “annoying” changes. It capped a bad start to 2018 after a tweet from Kylie Jenner asking her 24 million followers “does anyone else not open Snapchat anymore?” proved a stock market kiss of death, wiping $1.3bn off the company’s value.

On Tuesday, the user backlash against Snapchat, known for its disappearing messages and photograph filters, affected the company’s first quarter results, which missed targets. The service managed to add just 4 million new users in the first quarter, just over half the number forecast.

Snapchat also issued a growth warning saying the redesign fallout would mean a substantial slowdown in revenue in the current quarter. Snapchat’s 27-year old founder, Evan Spiegel, attempted to brush off the disaster, saying the redesign was necessary to broaden the app’s popularity with users and advertisers. Even taking Wednesday’s share slump into account, Snap is worth $17.6bn (£13bn).

However, analysts were not impressed. “It is not clear to us why the app redesign – the first product Snap ever tested at scale – was rolled out broadly, and we are even less clear on why it hasn’t been more aggressively rolled back already,” said Lloyd Walmsley, a Deutsche Bank analyst.

Snapchat reported 191 million daily active users in the first quarter, missing expectations of 194.15 million. Revenue came in at $230.7m, an increase of more than 50% year on year but below the $244.5m forecast.

Snapchat, which launched in 2011, has proved hugely popular with younger users, many of whom have defected from older social media platforms such as Facebook, and in the UK it is forecast to make more in ad revenue than Twitter next year.

However, Snapchat’s biggest threat is Facebook and its Instagram service, with Mark Zuckerberg’s social platforms frequently aping Snapchat’s innovations.

Analysts believe that for Snapchat to succeed against Facebook and Instagram it must appeal to a much wider range of users beyond its core youth fanbase.

“While the user base continues to be dominated by younger age groups, Snapchat’s full revenue potential will remain somewhat restricted,” said Bill Fisher, an analyst at eMarketer. “And with the financial muscle of Facebook behind Snapchat’s close competitor, Instagram, the company is going to have to work ever harder for those ad dollars.”



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EU: data-harvesting tech firms are ‘sweatshops of connected world’ | Technology

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The European data protection supervisor has hit out at social media and tech firms over the recent constant stream of privacy policy emails in the run up to GDPR, calling them them the “sweatshops of the connected world”.

With the tough new General Data Protection Regulations coming into force on 25 May, companies around the world are being forced to notify their users to accept new privacy policies and data processing terms to continue to use the services.

But Giovanni Buttarelli, the European data protection supervisor (EDPS), lambasted the often-hostile approach of the recent deluge of notifications.

“If this encounter seems a take-it-or-leave it proposition – with perhaps a hint of menace – then it is a travesty of at least the spirit of the new regulation, which aims to restore a sense of trust and control over what happens to our online lives,” said Buttarelli. “Consent cannot be freely given if the provision of a service is made conditional on processing personal data not necessary for the performance of a contract.”

“The most recent [Facebook] scandal has served to expose a broken and unbalanced ecosystem reliant on unscrupulous personal data collection and micro-targeting for whatever purposes promise to generate clicks and revenues.

“The digital information ecosystem farms people for their attention, ideas and data in exchange for so called ‘free’ services. Unlike their analogue equivalents, these sweatshops of the connected world extract more than one’s labour, and while clocking into the online factory is effortless it is often impossible to clock off.”

The European Union’s new stronger, unified data protection laws, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), will come into force on 25 May 2018, after more than six years in the making.

GDPR will replace the current patchwork of national data protection laws, give data regulators greater powers to fine, make it easier for companies with a “one-stop-shop” for operating across the whole of the EU, and create a new pan-European data regulator called the European Data Protection Board.

The new laws govern the processing and storage of EU citizens’ data, both that given to and observed by companies about people, whether or not the company has operations in the EU. They state that data protection should be both by design and default in any operation.

GDPR will refine and enshrine the “right to be forgotten” laws as the “right to erasure”, and give EU citizens the right to data portability, meaning they can take data from one organisation and give it to another. It will also bolster the requirement for explicit and informed consent before data is processed, and ensure that it can be withdrawn at any time.

To ensure companies comply, GDPR also gives data regulators the power to fine up to €20m or 4% of annual global turnover, which is several orders of magnitude larger than previous possible fines. Data breaches must be reported within 72 hours to a data regulator, and affected individuals must be notified unless the data stolen is unreadable, ie strongly encrypted.

While data protection and privacy has become a hot-button issue in part thanks to the Cambridge Analytica files, Buttarelli is concerned that it is simply being used as part of the “PR toolkit” of firms. He said that there is “a growing gulf between hyperbole and reality, where controllers learn to talk a good game while continuing with the same old harmful habits”.

A new social media subgroup of data protection regulators will be convened in mid-May to tackle what Buttarelli called the “manipulative approaches” that must change with GDPR.

“Brilliant lawyers will always be able to fashion ingenious arguments to justify almost any practice. But with personal data processing we need to move to a different model,” said Buttarelli. “The old approach is broken and unsustainable – that will be, in my view, the abiding lesson of the Facebook/ Cambridge Analytica case.”



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Podcasts are the new black: Chips with Everything podcast | Technology

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Subscribe and review: Acast, Apple, Spotify, Soundcloud, Audioboom, Mixcloud. Join the discussion on Facebook and Twitter or email us at [email protected]

More than a decade after the term was coined, podcasts still don’t feel quite like they’ve grown up. People are intrigued by them because they’re still outside the realm what we expect from traditional. And they’re popular.

So popular in fact that the biggest tech giants in the world are finally starting to take notice: after years of skating under the radar, podcasting is now the site of a turf war over everything from the apps you use to listen, to the distribution technologies you use to broadcast, to the content you actually download.

In late April 2018, Google entered the fray with a new podcast strategy that could see the number of listeners searching for their favourite shows double.

So why is there this push for huge companies to capitalise on a market that was once for the individual sitting at home who knew how to work an RSS feed, and who had something – anything – to say?

Guest host Alex Hern discusses Google’s announcement and its impact on the podcast industry. Alex is joined by podcaster Caroline Crampton and Steve Pratt of Pacific Content.





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Twitter reports profit for second quarter in a row and adds 6m new users | Technology

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It’s taken 12 years, but Twitter is now a money-maker. The social media company reported its second profitable quarter on Wednesday, driven by a 10% rise in users and faster growth overseas.

Twitter has struggled since it went public in 2013 and user growth has slowed dramatically. But while its US base is still declining, the company now seems to have found a rich source of international growth.

In its first financial quarter, Twitter’s revenue rose 21% from a year earlier to $664.9m, comfortably ahead of analysts’ expectations, and posted a profit of $61m, compared with a loss of $61.6m in the same quarter last year.

Twitter’s daily active users (DAU) rose 10% year-over-year, while monthly user numbers rose 3% to 336m. The company added 5 million people outside the United States and a million inside its home market.

Twitter now has 69 million monthly users in the US, 1% lower than this time last year, and 267 million internationally.

Twitter struggled for years to make a profit and its internal problems led to an exodus of executives and layoffs. Co-founder Jack Dorsey rejoined the company as chief executive last May and the company set a goal of “driving towards” profitability.

Advertising revenue rose 21% to $575m over the quarter, with strong growth in Asia.

As with its peers, Twitter is facing a backlash over the misuse of its platform by parties spreading fake news and hate speech. Twitter said it expects to increase its headcount by 10-15% in 2018 as it seeks to tackle the issues.

Doresey said: “The first quarter was a strong start to the year. We grew our audience and engagement, marking another quarter of double digit year-over-year DAU growth, and continued our work to make it easier to follow topics, interests, and events on Twitter.”



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Facebook urged to use face recognition to block scam ads | Technology

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Facebook is facing calls to deploy facial recognition technology to block scam adverts featuring celebrities, after consumer campaigner Martin Lewis launched legal proceedings against the social network over fake promotions claiming his endorsement.

Damian Collins, the chair of the parliamentary committee investigating online disinformation, told the Guardian he would ask the social network to consider new ways to block fake promotions when the company’s chief technology office appears to answer questions in parliament on Thursday.

“Martin Lewis’s case highlights yet another failure on the part of Facebook to protect its users,” said the Tory MP, who leads the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee. “The fact that the face of a man who has dedicated himself to aiding consumers to spend their money wisely could be used to defraud those very same people is something that Facebook should be ashamed of,” he said.

“Facebook is able to develop and roll out technology such as facial recognition to increase revenue,” he added. “These tools should be deployed, first and foremost to protect users.”

Lewis, who founded MoneySavingExpert.com, announced on Sunday that he is suing Facebook for defamation. He said one solution would be for Facebook to deploy the technology it already has in place to recognise the social network’s users in photos uploaded by their friends.

“They are the facial recognition experts, they should be able to recognise when they are being paid,” Lewis told the BBC, saying it is exasperating that he currently has to report each fake advert featuring his face on a case-by-case basis.

“I have put Facebook on notice. I don’t do adverts. Full stop. No company pays me to do an advert, I do not appear in adverts.”

Lewis said images of Virgin boss Richard Branson, plus Dragons’ Den stars Deborah Meaden and Peter Jones, are also often used to advertise dubious financial scams on Facebook.

Scammers use pictures of celebrities to grab attention, increase the number of clicks on an advert, and imply the public figure has endorsed the product or investment.

Many popular scam adverts have involved promotions for cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin. Meaden’s website now carries a prominent warning that she has never endorsed any Bitcoin investments, while Jones has made it clear that claims he has backed a cryptocurrency business are “entirely false” following a spate of scam adverts.

Facebook implemented a blanket ban on all adverts involving cryptocurrencies in January although some advertisers initially found ways to evade the new rule by changing the spelling of certain words.

A spokesperson for Branson reiterated his previous demand that the “platforms where the fake stories are spreading need to take responsibility” and said the Virgin boss believed the responsibility for stopping fake and misleading content being posted “should not fall solely on the shoulders of those high profile individuals being targeted”.

Facebook did not immediately return a request for comment on whether it would consider using its facial recognition technology to reduce the number of unauthorised scam adverts featuring celebrities.

Lewis also pointed out that several news sites reporting on his legal case, including the Guardian, had also been accompanied by misleading adverts featuring his image.

A Guardian News & Media spokesperson said such adverts featuring Lewis would not appear again in future: “The adverts in question were blocked this morning. We have asked our tech providers involved to urgently investigate how they passed their relevant quality checks.”



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Facebook says its free news feed is helping journalism | Technology

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Facebook has told the Australian competition regulator that news makes up just 5% of the content shared on the platform, and the social media giant is helping journalism by providing a free global distribution service for publishers.

In its submission to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission inquiry into the impact of digital platforms on media and advertising, Facebook also downplayed its collection and use of people’s data, saying many organisations, including newspapers, collected similar data.

“Facebook does not sell or provide data to advertisers,” the company said. “We provide them the ability to target their advertisements.”

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In a 56-page document, the company said the Facebook news feed was less than 5% news, and was a “free platform for global content distribution and promotion” which allowed publishers to connect with readers and advertisers. Facebook offers tools and products to publishers which allows them to promote their content and reach new readers.

This week Google said in its submission it was not contributing to the death of journalism.

Facebook criticised some of the information in the ACCC’s issues paper as inaccurate in its portrayal of the digital ecosystem of Facebook, publishers, businesses and consumers. The inquiry is looking into the the impact of Facebook, Google and Apple on the level of choice in news content and its quality.

A graphic published by the ACCC “does not adequately convey the value that digital platforms provide to consumers”, Facebook said.

Facebook portrayed itself as just one platform among many in a rapidly changing environment which demanded constant innovation and was competing for advertising with Snapchat, Google, YouTube, Amazon and others.

The average person now used eight different services to connect with friends and businesses and Facebook was just one of them competing for the attention of consumers and advertisers, the company said. Facebook said it spent more than $6bn a year on research and development to keep up with its competitors in innovation.

“If we stop innovating someone else will innovate around us – making us obsolete,” the submission said. “We know if we cease to be useful people will leave.”

But it admitted its privacy settings and other tools had been too hard to find and information about data collection was not clear. It said it had recently improved those services, but users should understand that their information was key to providing a personalised service.

“Our core value to consumers comes from the highly personalised and relevant experience we provide,” the submission said. “Information that people provide about themselves allows us to provide this experience and is therefore integral to the Facebook experience.”

Earlier this month Australia’s privacy commissioner launched an investigation to determine whether Facebook had breached the Australian Privacy Act after it was revealed up to one in 50 local users may have had their personal information accessed by Cambridge Analytica.

Facebook said in its submission that combating the spread of fake news was a priority. It was now banning advertisers who spread false information and users would see less content from those who shared clickbait headlines – even though the chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, admitted it would “considerably impact our profitability”.

The submission emphasised the benefits to local businesses from advertising on Facebook. More than 200 million people around the world were connected to an Australian business and most of them were small players, it said. More than 350,000 local businesses spent less than $US100 on advertising on Facebook in 2017.

In a separate submission to the inquiry, the ABC said it worked with Facebook, Google and other digital platforms to distribute its content, to increase engagement and to ensure more people discovered ABC content.

In 2017, 49.9% of Australians between the ages of 18 and 75 accessed ABC news and current affairs content, and the ABC reached 18.8% of Australian adults each week through third-party digital platforms, the submission said.

“The challenge of monetising digital content in this disrupted and increasingly global media landscape has coincided with a decline in the level of trust the public places in traditional sources of news media,” the ABC said.

“Overall, audience trust in the Australian media as an institution is at an all-time low, and the level of trust in the mainstream media’s ability to tell full, accurate and fair news has decreased.

“Simultaneously, digital platforms have contributed to an increase in public concern about fake news and there is a growing demand for news and journalistic content that is explained and verified.

“In this environment, the ABC – an independent and trusted Australian media organisation – has an increasingly important role to play; 81% of Australian adults trust the information provided by the ABC.”



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Safeguards for social media ‘inadequate’, says Jeremy Hunt | Politics

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The health secretary Jeremy Hunt launched a blistering attack on Sunday on social media companies for “turning a blind eye” to emotional problems and mental health damage suffered by children who have uncontrolled access to their online platforms.

In an angrily worded letter sent to executives at Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter and Google, Hunt says their failure to come forward with safeguards to control access is both “morally wrong” and “unfair on parents”.

Hunt says their inadequate responses have left him with no option but to consider legislation on internet safety. He has also asked the chief medical officer, Dame Sally Davies, to report on the impact of technology on young people’s mental health, and to recommend healthy limits for screen time.

In the letter, Hunt tells the companies that their work on devising ways to verify the age of children accessing social media platforms, on screen-time limits, and on measures to end cyberbullying has fallen short.

“In particular, progress on age verification is not good enough … I am concerned that your companies seem content with a situation where thousands of users breach your own terms and conditions on the minimum user age.

“I fear that you are collectively turning a blind eye to a whole generation of children being exposed to the harmful emotional side-effects of social media prematurely; this is both morally wrong and deeply unfair on parents, who are faced with the invidious choice of allowing children to use platforms they are too young to access, or excluding them from social interaction that often the majority of their peers are engaging in. It is unacceptable and irresponsible for you to put parents in this position.”

With the NHS facing a mounting crisis over a lack of mental health services for young people, the Guardian reported last year that an increasing number of young women were suffering mental health problems linked to conflicts with friends, fears about their body image and pressures created by social media.

Rates of stress, anxiety and depression were rising particularly sharply among teenage girls. NHS data showed that the number of times a girl aged 17 or under has been admitted to hospital in England because of self-harm had jumped from 10,500 to more than 17,500 a year over the previous decade – a rise of 68%. The rise among boys was much lower at 26%.

Hunt recognises in the letter that some progress has been made in developing new products to help parents limit what their children can access, but says it is nowhere near enough to convince him that the voluntary process for addressing the issues is working.

He adds that the pioneering services offered by the companies are not matched by an accompanying willingness to protect young people from the adverse effects: “Your industry boasts some of the brightest minds and biggest budgets globally. While these issues may be difficult, I do not believe that solutions are outside your reach: I do question whether [there] is sufficient will to reach them.”

The health secretary has been pushing for action from social media companies since late 2016, when he raised concerns about a growing online culture of intimidation and sexual imagery.

“There is a lot of evidence that the technology industry, if they put their mind to it, can do really smart things,” he said at the time. “For example, I ask myself the simple question as to why you can’t prevent the texting of sexually explicit images by people under the age of 18, if that’s a lock that parents choose to put on a mobile phone contract.” He added: “There is technology that can identify sexually explicit pictures and prevent [them] being transmitted.”

He also said at the time that technology should be used to tackle cyberbullying automatically, using “word-pattern recognition”.

There were many areas “where social media companies could put options in their software that could reduce the risks associated with social media”, he added.



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