New online safety bill sparks fears curbs may be used to limit free speech


Tech firms face fines of up to 10 per cent of their turnover if they fail to protect online users from harm, ministers will confirm today.

Under a new online harms bill, businesses will have a new ‘duty of care’ to protect children from cyberbullying, grooming and pornography.

However there are also concerns the legislation does not go far enough to protect legitimate news on the internet, and social media news feeds could be censored by tech giants.

Larger web companies such as Facebook, TikTok, Instagram and Twitter that fail to remove harmful content such as child sexual abuse, terrorist material and suicide content could face huge fines – or even have their sites blocked in the UK.

They could also be punished if they fail to prove they are doing all they can to tackle dangerous disinformation about coronavirus vaccines.

Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden said the Online Harms Bill was said Britain was setting the ‘global standard for safety online’

Ministers say that, as a last resort, senior managers could be held criminally liable for serious failings – although that law would only be brought in if other measures are shown not to work.

The government is also considering whether to make the promotion of self-harm illegal.

The new rules are designed to protect visitors to sites which allow users to post their own content or interact with others. 

However, the laws will not affect articles and comment sections on news websites, and there will be additional measures to protect free speech.

These have yet to be agreed, and there is widespread concern that when news is accessed via social media or search, internet giants will try to protect themselves from draconian penalties by setting their algorithms to censor content which is controversial but legitimate, such as criticism of government handling of the Covid crisis.

Social media giants could be fined £18million, or 10 per cent of their global turnover, if they fail to protect their users from harm, under new laws set to come into place next year

Social media giants could be fined £18million, or 10 per cent of their global turnover, if they fail to protect their users from harm, under new laws set to come into place next year 

Critics also say commercial organisations should not have the power to decide what news the public can read in social media news feeds, if it comes from legitimate news organisations.

Oliver Dowden, the Culture Secretary, said: ‘I’m unashamedly pro tech but that can’t mean a tech free for all.

‘Today Britain is setting the global standard for safety online with the most comprehensive approach yet to online regulation. We are entering a new age of accountability for tech to protect children and vulnerable users, to restore trust in this industry, and to enshrine in law safeguards for free speech.

‘This proportionate new framework will ensure we don’t put unnecessary burdens on small businesses but give large digital businesses robust rules of the road to follow so we can seize the brilliance of modern technology to improve our lives.’

The Daily Mail has long campaigned for children to be protected online, particularly via a duty of care.

Under the new rules, the most popular social media sites will be expected to set and enforce clear terms and conditions which explicitly state how they will handle content which is legal but could cause significant physical or psychological harm to adults.

This includes dangerous disinformation and misinformation about coronavirus vaccines, and will help bridge the gap between what companies say they do and what happens in practice.

Ofcom will have the power to fine companies failing in their duty of care up to £1 million or 10 per cent of annual global turnover, whichever is higher. It will have the power to block non-compliant services from being accessed in the UK.

The legislation includes provisions to impose criminal sanctions on senior managers.

Ministers said they will bring the powers into force should companies fail to take the new rules seriously – for example, if they do not respond fully, accurately and in a timely manner to information requests from Ofcom.

Home Secretary Priti Patel said the bill would give 'internet users the protection they deserve,' but critics have concerns that it could impact on free speech online

Home Secretary Priti Patel said the bill would give ‘internet users the protection they deserve,’ but critics have concerns that it could impact on free speech online

This power would be introduced by Parliament via secondary legislation, and reserving the power to compel compliance follows similar approaches in other sectors such as financial services regulation.

Home Secretary Priti Patel said: ‘We are giving internet users the protection they deserve and are working with companies to tackle some of the abuses happening on the web.

‘We will not allow child sexual abuse, terrorist material and other harmful content to fester on online platforms. Tech companies must put public safety first or face the consequences.’ Dame Melanie Dawes, Ofcom’s chief executive, said: ‘We’re really pleased to take on this new role, which will build on our experience as a media regulator. Being online brings huge benefits, but four in five people have concerns about it.

‘That shows the need for sensible, balanced rules that protect users from serious harm, but also recognise the great things about online, including free expression. We’re gearing up for the task by acquiring new technology and data skills, and we’ll work with Parliament as it finalises the plans.’

The new laws will be brought forward in an Online Safety Bill next year. 

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