Tech bosses could face jail after Tory MPs revolt on bill

2 months ago 33

Rishi SunakImage source, Getty Images

Tech bosses could face jail time for failing to protect children online, after the government conceded to a backbench rebellion.

Nearly 50 Tory MPs wanted to amend the Online Safety Bill to introduce two-year sentences for managers who fail to stop children seeing harmful material.

The government had been facing defeat, with Labour also supporting the move.

Under a deal with the rebels to stave off defeat, ministers have now promised to introduce similar proposals.

It is the third time that Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has backed down in the face of rebellious backbenchers since taking power in October.

It follows concessions late last year on the issues of housing targets for councils and restrictions on onshore wind farms.

The bill would oblige managers of sites hosting user-generated content, including social media sites, to take "proportionate measures" to stop children seeing harmful material.

The draft law says this could be through measures such as age verification, taking content down, and parental controls.

Currently the bill would only make managers criminally liable for failing to give information to media regulator Ofcom, which is set to gain wide-ranging powers to police the internet under the new law.

Making managers liable for a failure to comply with broader safety duties in the bill was rejected after a consultation ahead of the bill's introduction, which concluded it could make the UK tech sector less attractive.

Companies failing in their legal duties, including protecting children, could be fined up to 10% of global revenue.

However, the Tory rebels had argued that only personal liability for company bosses would ensure the child safety provisions are effective.

Regulator with 'teeth'

Rebels have agreed to withdraw their amendment after talks with Culture Secretary Michelle Donelan over the weekend.

In exchange, the government has now agreed to introduce an amendment of its own along similar lines when the bill gets to the House of Lords - giving ministers more time to work on the wording.

Ms Donelan said the government's proposals, based on a system used in Ireland, would introduce criminal liability for bosses who fail to comply with a notice to end contravention of the law.

She said this would give the bill "additional teeth" and ensure people are held to account if they fail to properly protect children.

Ms Donelan said the amendment would be designed to capture instances where senior managers have "have consented or connived in ignoring enforceable requirements, risking serious harm to children".

She added that criminal penalties, including imprisonment and fines, would be in line with similar offences.

However, Ms Donelan stressed the proposals would not affect "those who have acted in good faith to comply in a proportionate way".

Sir Bill Cash, a leading Tory rebel, told the BBC the agreement with ministers was a "huge step forward", adding that senior managers in the sector "will not want to run the risk of going to jail".

Other Conservatives supporting the amendment include former Tory leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith, and other ex-ministers including former home secretary Priti Patel.

Labour's shadow culture secretary Lucy Powell said Ofcom needed "sufficient teeth that Silicon Valley bosses would sit up and take notice".

But she also accused ministers of scaling back the bill significantly when it came to protections for adults.

Ms Donelan said the government would also take steps to tackle the advertising of small boat Channel crossings on social media, in response to calls led by Tory MP Natalie Elphicke, who represents Dover.

She said changes to the bill would mean posting videos which showed Channel crossings in a positive light could be an offence and platforms would have to "proactively remove" such content.

The Online Safety Bill was introduced in March under Boris Johnson, and has been repeatedly altered during its passage through Parliament.

Its progress was further delayed last month when the government decided to make more changes to the bill.

After its passage through the House of Commons, it is expected to face a lengthy journey through the House of Lords.

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