Social media executives risk two years in prison for failing to protect users under the Online Safety Bill



Managers on social media in companies, such as Twitter and Facebook risk up to two years in prison if they do not comply with a new online regulator, under new government proposals.

Ministers will announce the long-awaited Online security bill which will give the government sweeping new powers to crack down on what has been described as the “Wild West” in the online world.

Under the proposed legislation, senior executives and executives of tech giants risk being jailed for up to two years if they try to obstruct or suppress the efforts of regulator Ofcom to investigate companies believed to cause harm to users.

The bill had previously said it would delay bringing the power to make named individuals criminally liable for two years after the bill was passed to give the sector time to adapt.

But Culture Minister Nadine Dorries ordered that the suspension period be cut to just two months to “strengthen the penalties for offenses from the beginning”.

Although it is not expected that it will imprison leaders, the government wanted to have the powers written into law. Other sanctions will include being able to fine tech companies with 10 per cent of their global turnover if they fail to act and as a last resort the legislation will allow the government to block websites from the UK.

When she unveiled the proposals, Ms Dorries said technology companies have not been held accountable when “damage, abuse and criminal behavior have broken down on their platforms”.

“Instead, they have been left to mark their own homework,” she said. “We do not give it a second when we fasten our seat belts to protect ourselves when we drive.

“Given all the risks online, it only makes sense that we ensure similar basic protection for the digital age.”

The revised legislation has also changed its approach to so-called “legal but harmful” content – material which is not in itself illegal, but which may cause harm to users who encounter it.

According to the updated bill, the largest social media platforms must address this content and perform risk assessments of the types of damage that may occur to their service and how they plan to deal with it, and indicate how they will do this in their terms of service.

What is considered “legal but harmful” will be set out in secondary legislation.

Crucially, the government says it will exempts news content from any of the rules as part of efforts to protect freedom of expression, although these elements are expected to be added to the bill later.

Ministers took the decision to sharpen the bill after concerns were raised that it would not go far enough to protect users online.

The warnings triggered a number of other recently announced changes to the bill, including bringing paid for scam ads in scopethat require sites that host pornography to ensure that their users are 18 years of age or older and criminalization of cyberflash.

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DCMS committee chairman Julian Knight welcomed the bill, adding: “The fact that the government has listened to our concerns, especially regarding cyber-flashing and age protection, shows the real value of our pre-legislative control. We are particularly pleased that Parliament and not technology companies will play a key and decisive role in what is legal but harmful content. “

Sir Peter Wanless, NSPCC Executive Director, described the bill as a “landmark piece of legislation”, adding: “[The bill] must respond to the complex nature of online child abuse, provide sufficient deterrent value to large technology companies and ensure that protection expertise is embedded in the regulatory system. “

At first glance:

What will the Online Safety Bill do?

Legislation has been underway for years, with David Cameron first calling for plans to better regulate the Internet back in 2013. At the heart of the bill is new powers to hold tech giants accountable if they fail to fulfill their duty to care for their users. Ministers say it will protect children from harmful content, such as pornography, reduce people’s exposure to illegal content, while “protecting freedom of expression”.

How will it do this?

The bill will give major new powers to Ofcom, the regulator, whose mandate will be extended to monitor the Internet as well as broadcasts. The watchdog will have the power to demand information from tech companies if they prove to fail in their duty of care, including the role of their algorithms in selecting and displaying content that is likely to cause harm. It will also have the power to enter the premises of tech companies to access data and equipment and request interviews. Failure to comply may result in a fine of up to 10 percent of their global revenue, up to two years in prison for managers, or complete blocking of platforms.

How will the bill protect children?

All pornographic sites will be required to verify the age of their users with the help of third party providers. According to officials, the technology is now well-established to ensure that all users over the age of 18 who use credit card information. A new requirement would mean that companies must report sexual exploitation and abuse of children’s content they discover on their platforms to the National Crime Agency. Platforms may also be required to use “content moderation, user profiling, and behavioral identification” tools to protect their users.

How will it protect freedom of expression?

While ministers say there will be a new duty on platforms to tackle “legal but harmful” content, they also insist that the new bill will not restrict people’s freedom of expression. What constitutes “lawful but harmful” will be decided by Parliament under secondary law. The government says that for the first time, people will have the right to complain if they feel that something they have posted online has been unfairly removed. Ministers say there will be separate requirements on social media platforms when it comes to protecting journalism where news content is “completely exempt from regulation under the bill”.

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