The British government is on the verge of approving tougher measures for a new online safety bill that could make tech CEOs like Mark Zuckerberg criminally liable for harmful content consumed by children on social media.
Specifically, an amendment to the bill proposes jail sentences of up to two years for tech executives who fail to shield young children from online content that experts say puts them at increased risk of self-harm.
According to the language of the bill, tech companies will be required to “remove illegal content” which includes “child sexual abuse,” “controlling or coercive behavior,” “extreme sexual violence,” “fraud,” “hate crime,” “inciting violence,” “illegal immigration and people smuggling,” “promoting or facilitating suicide,” “promoting self harm,” “revenge porn,” “sexual exploitation,” and “terrorism.”
Tech firms will be required to “prevent children from accessing harmful and age-inappropriate content.” They will also be required to “enforce age limits and age-checking measures” as well as to “publish risk assessments.”
Failure by tech companies to enforce these measures also could result in stiff penalties, including fines of up to $22 million or “10% of their annual global turnover, whichever is greater.”
“Criminal action will be taken against senior managers who fail to follow information requests from [regulators,” according to the British government.
UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has reached agreement with lawmakers from his Conservative Party who demanded changes to the Online Safety Bill. The proposed legislation will go before the House of Lords sometime this spring and is widely expected to pass sometime before the UK’s parliamentary session ends in November.
Sunak’s governing coalition was at risk of having the bill defeated by his own party unless the tougher restrictions were added to the legislation, according to Reuters.
Bill Cash, a veteran Conservative lawmaker and one of the rebels, told the BBC the agreement with ministers was a “huge step forward” and said that senior managers in the tech sector “will not want to run the risk of going to jail.”
Britain, like the European Union and other countries, has been grappling to protect social media users, and in particular children, from harmful content without damaging free speech.
The UK — unlike the US — does not have free speech protections enshrined in a constitution.
Silicon Valley is said to be keeping a close eye on how the bill is winding its way through the UK parliament.
Jimmy Wales, the co-founder of online encyclopedia Wikipedia, tweeted earlier this month that the proposed legislation amounted to “tyranny.”
The initial iteration of the bill, which was introduced in November, demanded that social media apps remove content deemed “legal but harmful.” But lawmakers ended up removing those provisions over concerns that it would curtail freedom of speech.
Online safety laws would instead focus on the protection of children and on ensuring companies removed content that was illegal or prohibited in their terms of service, it said, adding that it would not specify what legal content should be censored.
Digital Secretary Michelle Donelan said that rather than watering down the bill, she had strengthened protection for children by making companies enforce the age limits they had already set.
“Companies can’t just say ‘Yes, we only allow children over 13 to join our platform’, then they allow 10-year-olds and actively promote it to them,” she told BBC radio.
“We’re stopping that from happening.”
Meta, the parent company of social media apps Facebook and Instagram, has been blamed for a spike in the number of children and teenagers who are reported to suffer from eating disorders, depression, and even suicidal ideation.