Social media bosses who fail to protect under-18s from harm online could face jail under plans being drawn up by the UK government, after Rishi Sunak conceded to demands from almost 50 Tory backbench MPs over the flagship online safety bill.
The legislation, which returned to the House of Commons on Tuesday, is designed to protect under-18s from harmful content and remove illegal content online. It empowers Ofcom, the communications regulator, to impose large fines on tech groups that do not comply with the law.
Last week, more than three dozen Tory MPs backed an amendment led by Miriam Cates and Sir Bill Cash that would lead to senior tech managers being threatened with up to two years in prison if they were found to have failed in their duty to protect under-18s from harmful content.
Following talks between culture secretary Michelle Donelan and leading rebels, Conservative MPs agreed to drop their amendment and work with her on altering the legislation in the House of Lords.
In a statement on Tuesday, Donelan confirmed that, together with Cates and others, she would “table an effective amendment” in the Lords.
Donelan said the new amendment would be modelled on the Irish Online Safety and Media Regulation Act and give the online safety bill “additional teeth to deliver change and ensure that people are held to account”.
The new measures would not “affect those who have acted in good faith to comply in a proportionate way”, she added.
Under the Irish legislation, senior managers can be found criminally liable after a series of checks, including if they do not comply with a warning notice from the country’s online safety commissioner.
The legislation passed its third reading on Tuesday evening and will now be scrutinised by the House of Lords.
The climbdown marks Sunak’s third since he became prime minister over controversial legislation to avoid a defeat from his own MPs. Last year, he narrowly avoided parliamentary defeats over retaining a de facto ban on onshore wind farms and housing planning reforms, opting instead to compromise with backbenchers.
Shadow culture secretary Lucy Powell said: “Labour was ahead of the curve calling for stronger regulation online that protects children, our society and democracy.
“We welcome these changes but in watering down this legislation the scope of the regulator is too narrow.”
Criminal liability for senior managers is supported by child safety charities and campaigners, including Ian Russell, whose daughter Molly took her own life after viewing harmful content on sites including Instagram.
Richard Collard, associate head of child online safety at children’s charity the NSPCC, said the government’s decision was a “crucial step towards legislation that can truly act as a pillar of the child protection system for years to come”.
TechUK, a trade body, has maintained that the consequences for failing to comply with the current bill, including the threat of a 10 per cent fine based on annual global revenue, are enough to force companies to protect children online.
But the body on Tuesday welcomed Donelan’s statement and the clarity over how any sanctions on senior managers would be enacted.
“Any proposal for senior management liability needs to be clear, proportionate and workable,” said Neil Ross, associate director of policy. “We are pleased the government has recognised this.”