Govt to impose sanctions on social media bosses over harmful content inaction

15 December 2020, 15:33

Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden brought forward proposals to tackle online abuse
Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden brought forward proposals to tackle online abuse. Picture: PA Images
Ewan Quayle

By Ewan Quayle

MPs will get a vote on whether to impose criminal sanctions on the senior managers of tech companies that fail to remove harmful content, the culture secretary has said.

Making a statement on the online harms consultation, Oliver Dowden said that platforms including Twitter and Instagram "will no longer be able to mark their own homework" as the Government seeks to clamp down on damaging material online.

"To hold them to their responsibilities," he added, "I can also announce to the House today that major platforms will be required to publish annual transparency reports to track their progress - this could include the number of reports of harmful content received and the action taken as a result.

Read more: Online platforms 'could face multimillion-pound fines' over harmful content

"This will be a robust regime requiring those at the top to take responsibility. I can therefore confirm that we will legislate to introduce criminal sanctions for senior managers, with Parliament taking the final decision as to whether to introduce that."

The plans mark one of the first major interventions by a government in how to regulate online platforms - something that ministers and officials have been keen to stay clear of due to the complexities of managing worldwide content.

Mr Dowden said he hopes tech companies would be able to "engineer the harm out of their platforms from the very outset" and expressed a desire for the Government to not have to get involved.

"But have no doubt, they remain an option and we will use them if we need to," he warned.

On videos which encourage self-harm, he told MPs: "It is unforgivable that this sort of content should be circulating unchecked on social media and, given the severity of its consequences, I believe there is a strong case for making it illegal.

"So I can today announce that the Government has asked the Law Commission to examine how the criminal law will address the encouragement or assistance of self-harm."

Shadow culture secretary Jo Stevens welcomed the move "to protect children and the vulnerable online" but said it is a "long overdue" decision.

She added that there is a "once-in-a-generation" chance to legislate on the issue before it got out of hand and demanded to know how quickly the Government would bring forward a bill to vote on.

Senior managers of online platforms could be sanction by the UK Government
Senior managers of online platforms could be sanction by the UK Government. Picture: PA Images

"(Mr Dowden) has said that the UK will lead the way with this legislation," Ms Stevens added, "but I'm afraid that the response today is lacking in ambition. It does feel like a missed opportunity.

"This is a once-in-a-generation chance to legislate for the kind of internet we want to see that keeps both children and adult citizens safe and allows people to control what kind of content they see online.

Ms Stevens said she was concerned the culture secretary may have "watered down" proposals after being "persuaded by Sheryl Sandberg and Nick Clegg" in his meeting with them last month - something he denies.

It follows a number of high-profile cases where social media has contributed to someone's death, including Molly Russell - a 14-year-old who took her own life in 2017 after excessive exposure to distressing material about depression and suicide on Instagram.

Her father, Ian Russell, insists the blame lies with the Facebook - which owns the platform - and has called for significant changes to be made to how content is regulated and filtered.