Social media giants must block under-13s or be hit with 'humongous' penalties, minister says

5 September 2023, 22:18

Michelle Donelan said the companies could face 'humongous' fines for breaking the rules
Michelle Donelan said the companies could face 'humongous' fines for breaking the rules. Picture: Alamy

By Kit Heren

Social media companies must block children under the age of 13 going on their sites, or face massive fines, a minister has warned.

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Michelle Donelan. the Secretary of State for Science, Innovation and Technology, said the government would pursue a "zero-tolerance" approach to platforms like Instagram, Facebook and TikTok letting young children on their services.

"If that means deactivating the accounts of nine-year-olds or eight-year-olds, then they’re going to have to do that," she said.

Ms Donelan told the Telegraph that "otherwise the mental toll and the ramifications for these young people is unimaginable and we’re just storing up a bigger problem for tomorrow in terms of the long-term impact that we are going to face."

It comes as the controversial Online Safety Bill returns to Parliament on Wednesday for its stages.

Read more: Protect children or pay the price, Culture Sec warns social media giants

Read more: 'Encrypted web chats are a digital playground for paedos': Javid backs Government's Online Safety Bill amendment

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If passed into law, the bill would - among a huge raft of other changes - require tech firms to remove illegal content quickly or prevent it from appearing in the first place, including material promoting self harm, and prevent children from accessing inappropriate content by enforcing age limits and age-checking measures.

Regulator Ofcom will be able to fine companies up to 10% of their annual turnover if they don't have proper checks to enforce age limits.

As many as 60% of 8-11 year-olds in the UK currently have at least one social media account, according to Ofcom.

Having already been carried over from a previous parliamentary session, parliamentary rules mean the bill must be passed by October 31 otherwise it will fall when Parliament is prorogued ahead of the King's Speech.

Michelle Donelan
Michelle Donelan. Picture: Alamy

The Bill has been complicated but is expected to be a priority in the weeks remaining either side of the conference recess.

Campaigners have warned that the bill could have a chilling effect on freedom of speech.

Ms Donelan said: "We’ve got kids as young as nine, eight-year-olds on social media platforms and also accessing things like pornography.

"We can’t expect these young children to grow up and be able to live happy, successful lives unless we’re setting them up right. That is important. That’s why these changes are going to make a massive difference."

She added: “If the [companies] are found by the regulator to be allowing young people on their platform below the age of 13, they could face these massive humongous fines.

"If they continue to ignore that they could even face potentially criminal liability. So this is a massive deterrent to ensure that social media companies take this seriously."

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