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Rishi Sunak government to target tech bosses in new online safety bill

IFM_Rishi Sunak
Rishi Sunak reached an agreement with his Conservative Party colleagues who demanded changes to the Online Safety Bill

The Rishi Sunak government is likely to approve tougher measures for a new online safety bill that could make global tech CEOs criminally liable for United Kingdom children consuming harmful content on social media.

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, which as per experts, puts the kids at increased risk of self-harm.

According to the bill, tech companies will be required to remove content which promotes “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.”

In order to prevent children from accessing alleged harmful and age-inappropriate content, these tech companies will also be required to “enforce age limits and age-checking measures” as well as to “publish risk assessments” of the content on their platforms, the bill further states.

A failure to enforce any of these measures would result in the tech company paying stiff penalties, including fines of up to USD 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,” the British government stated.

The government will target bosses who ignore enforcement notices from Ofcom, the communications regulator. However, it will not criminalise executives who have “acted in good faith to comply in a proportionate way” with their duties, said media reports.

The development comes after Rishi Sunak reached an agreement with his Conservative Party colleagues who demanded changes to the Online Safety Bill. The proposed legislation will go before the House of Lords and is expected to be passed before the United Kingdom parliamentary session ends in November 2023.

As per Reuters, the Rishi Sunak government was at risk of having the bill defeated by its own party unless tougher restrictions were added to the legislation.

Veteran Conservative MP Bill Cash 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, which does not have free speech protections enshrined in a constitution, has been grappling recently to protect its social media users, especially children, from harmful content, a same problem shared by the European Union as well.

However, tech sectors have mixed opinions on the soon-to-be-approved bill.

Jimmy Wales, the co-founder of the online encyclopedia Wikipedia, tweeted recently that the proposed legislation amounted to “tyranny.”

The original bill, which was introduced in November 2022, demanded that social media apps remove content deemed “legal but harmful.” However, lawmakers removed those provisions over concerns that it would curtail freedom of speech, a decision which resulted in rebellion within Conservative Party ranks.

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. We’re stopping that from happening,” she told BBC radio.

Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, has been blamed for a spike in the number of children suffering from eating disorders, depression, and even suicidal ideation.

In 2021, former Facebook employee Frances Haugen revealed internal company documents which show that the firm’s own software engineers were aware that their product was having adverse psychological effects on youngsters, particularly teenage girls.

Lawsuits were filed against Meta alleging that the company, despite internal warnings, continued bombarding kids with images that fuelled mental disorders in order to maximize profit.

Similar lawsuits have been filed against other popular social media apps such as TikTok and Snapchat.

The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC), the child protection charity, welcomed the bill, saying that the senior management liability would help create culture change within tech firms.

“By committing to senior manager liability the culture secretary has sent a strong and welcome signal that she will give the online safety bill the teeth needed to drive a culture change within the heart of tech companies that will help protect children from future tragedies,” said Richard Collard, the associate head of child safety online policy at the NSPCC.

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