Watson: End “surveillance capitalism” to “safeguard our democracy”

Tom Watson will call for an end to “surveillance capitalism” today as the deputy party leader and Labour spokesman for digital, culture, media and sport outlines fresh policies aimed at tackling the disproportionate power of top tech companies.

In a wide-ranging landmark speech on Wednesday, Watson will argue that the digital market is “distorted” by data monopolies and that the current laissez-faire approach must end with the introduction of further regulation.

“The power dynamic between platforms and users has long been lopsided. We need to take more control over how our personal data is collected and monetised through a Data Bill of Rights,” the Shadow Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport is expected to say.

Watson will set out plans for a new statutory regulator that could break up monopolies “if it is in the public interest”, greater control by citizens over how their data is collected, and a legal duty of care forcing companies to protect users from harm.

Referring to the 2017 suicide of 14-year-old Molly Russell, whose parents have highlighted the prevalence of self-harm images on social media, Watson will say: “This is the kind of harm online content can contribute to when the right safeguards are not in place, a consequence of an industry that too often chooses to profit from children, rather than protect them.”

“The science and technology select committee… found that the current patchwork of initiatives does not offer our children the protection they need, leaving children vulnerable to content that is detrimental, and in some cases dangerous, to their wellbeing. I agree – our children need more than patchwork protection.”

Tacitly alluding to Brexit and ‘fake news’, Watson will also talk about how democracy can be undermined via “digital disinformation”, which “divides our society, damages our faith in the media and distorts electoral outcomes”.

“The rise in digital disinformation shows that the technologies underpinning the digital economy are too easily turned against us, sowing division and bringing extremism from the margins to the mainstream,” he will say.

“And here lies the danger to our democracy: conspiracy sells better than truth, and hate sells better than compassion. So digital platforms are ideally suited to propagandists peddling bigotry and division to the disillusioned.”

Watson will recommend fresh rules, including that online political advertisers should be physically located in the country if targeting UK citizens, social media bots should be clearly labelled and digital companies would have to remove illegal content.

“Too many platforms choose ad sales over accuracy, clickbait over credibility,” Watson is expected to argue. “We will work with civil society groups to cultivate public knowledge about disinformation, and we will deliver media literacy across our education system to support the next generation of voters.

“And we will protect users from those who use digital media platforms to parade illegal material. Illegal content like hate speech and incitements to violence should be removed for the internet. It is the duty of digital media companies to ensure those removals are rapid.”

The significant speech, which lays out a substantial raft of policy proposals, follows Jeremy Corbyn’s Alternative MacTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh Television Festival in August. Last year, the Labour leader backed radical reform of the BBC and said the party would consider a new windfall tax on digital monopolies.

Corbyn also called for the Freedom of Information Act relied on by many journalists to be strengthened, and for some local, investigative and public interest journalism to be given charitable status. Most notably, he suggested a ‘British Digital Corporation’ could be created to possibly rival Facebook.

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