UK prime minister Rishi Sunak is facing a major rebellion over the Online Safety Bill, with 36 Conservative MPs calling for social media bosses to be jailed if their platforms publish harmful content.
In an amendment to the bill which is also supported by Labour, communications watchdog Ofcom would be given the power to prosecute individual executives at social media companies that are found to have breached the law.
They could face up to two years in prison if found to have failed to protect children from harm on their platforms, for example by publishing content promoting self-harm, showing sexual violence or facilitating suicide.
Led by backbenchers Miriam Cates and Sir Bill Cash, the clause has the support of heavyweights including former home secretary Priti Patel and former Tory leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith.
“We have seen repeated failures of big tech to protect children from the horrors of sexual exploitation, pornography and content that draws them into self-harm and suicide, and sadly the Online Safety Bill as it stands will not stop this,” says Cates.
“The only way to secure the change we desperately need is to make senior directors personally responsible for failures to protect children and that’s why I urge all MPs to support this amendment to include senior manager liability in the Online Safety Bill.”
The idea of making executives criminally liable was under consideration earlier in the legislative process, but was rejected over fears that it would discourage companies from investing in the UK. Instead, the bill currently allows firms failing in their duties to be fined up to ten per cent of global revenue.
But the MPs point out that similar provisions exist in the construction and financial services industries, with Cates suggesting to the BBC that there has been a ‘massive’ drop in accidents and deaths in construction as a result.
The amendment is supported by childrens’ charity the NSPCC.
“2022 was the year the Online Safety Bill faced delay after delay. Meanwhile children faced sexual abuse on an industrial scale and tech bosses sat on their hands as their algorithms continued to bombard young users with hugely dangerous material,” says CEO Sir Peter Wanless.
“This year must be the year legislation delivers the systemic change for children online that our polling shows families up and down the UK are asking for.”
With conservatives rebelling on this scale, there is a strong chance that the government could be defeated, and culture secretary Michelle Donelan has hinted that a climbdown could be on the cards.
“I’m not ruling out any of those amendments because I’ve been working through them,” she told the BBC. “I’m somebody that always takes a sensible approach to these things.”
Other proposed changes to the bill include giving users the option to screen out ‘legal but harmful’ material such as cyberbullying or racist content and requiring tech companies to state clearly how they plan to moderate it.
The bill is due to return to the House of Commons next week.