Social Media firms That Fail to Protect Children to be Barred
Social media platforms that fail to protect children from harm online face being shut down under “history-making” new laws to be unveiled by the Government today (Wednesday). In an article for The Telegraph – which can be read below – Oliver Dowden, the Culture Secretary, warns tech companies that they will have “no excuses” and “must face the consequences” if they fail to remove illegal and harmful content under a draft duty of care Bill.
The legislation – the first of its kind globally and designed to make Britain the safest country in the world online – follows a three-year campaign by The Telegraph for duty of care laws to protect children from online harms. Mr Dowden said the tech giants would not only face fines of up to £13 billion for breaches of the duty of care laws but could also see their websites blocked to UK users, with the toughest measures aimed at protecting children.
Social media giants including Facebook, Instagram, Whatsapp and Youtube would no longer be allowed to let under-aged children on to their sites with “no further questions asked” and would instead face sanctions for failing to enforce minimum age limits. Mr Dowden pledged that the Bill would finally turn the tide on racist, misogynistic and anti-semitic abuse online.
“Enough is enough. We’re all sick to death of the bile and the threats,” he said. “If it’s illegal, platforms like Facebook and Twitter will have to flag and remove online abuse quickly and effectively or face the consequences. The same goes if it breaches their terms and conditions. No more excuses.”
It came as Boris Johnson revealed his legislative agenda for the next year with more than two dozen new bills in the Queen’s Speech, including one to better protect freedom of speech on university campuses. The Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill will be introduced on Wednesday, proposing fines for universities if they fail to protect free speech and a route to compensation for visiting speakers who are “no-platformed” for their views. Hailing it as a “milestone moment”, Gavin Williamson, the Education Secretary, said the changes would end “the chilling effect of censorship on campus once and for all”.
The Government also confirmed that it was ramping up its war on obesity by banning advertisements for junk food from television before 9pm and entirely online. An NHS shake-up, asylum reform, crackdown on foreign spies and the biggest overhaul of the planning system for 70 years were also included in the list of coming legislation. The Queen delivered the speech in person from the House of Lords in a pared back reopening of Parliament, arriving in a car rather than the traditional carriage. Mr Johnson vowed to channel the public-mindedness shown during the pandemic, saying: “The Government’s task is to mobilise that extraordinary spirit, matching talent with opportunity and unleashing our nation’s full potential.”
In his article, Mr Dowden praised The Telegraph’s Duty of Care campaign, saying: “The Telegraph has valiantly led the charge on online safety – doing so much through its Duty of Care campaign to highlight the risks the internet poses to the youngest members of society. Our strongest measures are to protect them.”
The Culture Secretary also announced that the new Bill would place a legal requirement on social media firms to protect “freedom of expression” and “democratic content”, with measures to prevent them arbitrarily removing controversial political material. “The last thing we want is for users or journalists to be silenced on the whims of a tech CEO or woke campaigners,” he said. “So today the Government is publishing history-making legislation that will finally bring accountability to the online world,” said Mr Dowden. “It will keep our kids safer online, but it won’t be a censors’ charter.”
Social media users will have a right of appeal to reinstate their content if it has been “unfairly” removed. It will be overseen by Ofcom, the new online regulator, which will have powers to fine companies that consistently remove material in breach of their terms and conditions.
The draft Bill will give the regulator powers to impose fines of up to £18 million or 10 per cent of global turnover, whichever is greater. It would mean Ofcom could issue a maximum fine of £6 billion on Facebook and £13 billion on Google if they fail to “remove and limit” illegal content including child abuse, terrorist, suicide and potentially self-harm content. It has, however, stopped short of immediately introducing criminal sanctions against named directors whose companies failed to comply with the Duty of Care – as demanded by children’s charities and campaigners, including the NSPCC.
Instead, these will be held back as “reserve” powers that will be marshalled against the tech giants if they fail to clean up their acts or do not allow Ofcom access to their algorithms, which have been blamed for promoting harmful content to children. However, the Government has proposed a tiered approach for “legal but harmful” content such as bullying, with the biggest firms – Facebook, TikTok, Instagram and Twitter – in category one.
They will be expected to abide by terms and conditions agreed with the regulator to bar any content that could cause “significant physical or psychological harm to adults” and publish reports to demonstrate the steps taken to tackle online harms. They face fines for breaches.
Caroline Dinenage, the digital minister, promised on Tuesday that MPs would get to vote to decide what legal but harmful online material Ofcom would police. Ministers have signalled that it will include racism, anti-semitism, misogyny and financial scams. It follows a campaign across sport to boycott social media because of its failure to stem the racial abuse of footballers.
The father of Molly Russell, the 14-year-old schoolgirl who took her life after viewing self-harm material on Instagram and other sites, welcomed the Bill but warned that it would fail if it did not clamp down on social media algorithms that bombarded users with harmful content.
Speaking to The Telegraph, Ian Russell said: “If that is watered down in any way and if harmful content continues to be promoted and pushed by tech companies’ algorithms, then the Bill will have failed and people will remain at risk.”
If it’s illegal offline, it should be illegal online – that’s our vowed duty of care
The internet is an amazing thing, and has totally redefined how we connect and communicate, writes Oliver Dowden. But if platforms like Facebook and Twitter are the new town square, then that square is in serious need of a clean-up.
In the last few weeks, we’ve seen footballers leading a mass boycott of social media to protest against abhorrent racist abuse. Women are trolled and threatened on a daily basis. Children are exposed to cyberbullying, sexual grooming and suicide content.
At the same time, there are legitimate concerns that social media platforms have arbitrarily silenced or blocked users, giving tech companies vast power over one of our core democratic rights – freedom of expression.
We wouldn’t accept this in the real world, and we shouldn’t accept it online.
So today the Government is publishing history-making legislation that will finally bring accountability to the online world. Every country in the world is grappling with this issue, and it was an issue that occupied a lot of my recent digital summit with G7 partners.
This week, the UK is leading the way in solving it – and we are doing so by putting British values at the heart of our legislation. This country has a long and proud tradition of striking the balance between protecting people, particularly the young and vulnerable, while protecting fundamental freedoms. This legislation is very much in that tradition. It will keep our kids safer online, but it won’t be a censor’s charter.
So what is actually in the Bill? The Telegraph has valiantly led the charge on online safety, doing so much through its Duty of Care campaign to highlight the risks the internet poses to the youngest members of society. Our strongest measures are to protect them.
Under our draft legislation, social media companies will have to take steps to shield young users from illegal activity online as well as inappropriate and harmful content, like pornography or self-harm material. If they fail to do so, for example, they’ll face steep fines of up to 10 percent of their global turnover – which could mean billions. They could also see their websites blocked.
And it’s not enough for a company like Whatsapp to set a minimum age limit and fail to enforce it. We wouldn’t allow an 11-year-old to walk into a corner shop and buy some cigarettes simply by claiming they were over 18. And yet underage children routinely skirt age limits online by declaring they’re old enough, no further questions asked. That will no longer fly under our legislation.
At the same time, platforms will have to take swift and effective action to remove criminal posts, including child sexual abuse and terrorist material. If it’s illegal offline, it’s illegal online.
Meanwhile, it’s time to finally turn the tide on racist, misogynistic and anti-semitic abuse. Enough is enough. We’re all sick to death of the bile and the threats. If it’s illegal, platforms like Facebook and Twitter will have to flag and remove online abuse quickly and effectively, or face the consequences. The same goes if it breaches their terms and conditions. No more excuses.
Finally, we need to defend one of the cornerstones of our democracy – freedom of expression. Right now, social media companies can turn off free speech at the flick of a switch.
The last thing we want is for users or journalists to be silenced on the whims of a tech CEO or woke campaigners. So this legislation also includes strong safeguards for free speech – including a new general requirement for social media companies to protect freedom of expression when moderating content. If someone feels their content has been taken down unfairly, they’ll have the right to appeal.
We’ve also placed a protective bubble around journalistic and “democratically important” content. News publishers’ content won’t be in scope – whether it’s on their own sites or on other online services. The largest platforms will also have to protect posts on areas of political controversy, and companies won’t be able to discriminate against particular political viewpoints.
Taken in full, this Bill represents one of the most comprehensive and balanced responses to the digital revolution since technology began transforming our lives three decades or so ago. We’re entering a new age of accountability for tech – for the good of everyone who uses it.
Oliver Dowden MP is Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport
© Charles Hymas, Mike Wright / The Telegraph
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