The United Kingdom wants to become the safest place for children to grow up online. Many UK lawmakers have argued that the only way to guarantee that future is to criminalize tech leaders whose platforms knowingly fail to protect children. Today, the UK House of Commons reached a deal to appease those lawmakers, Reuters reports, with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s government agreeing to modify the Online Safety Bill to ensure its passage. It now appears that tech company executives found to be “deliberately” exposing children to harmful content could soon risk steep fines and jail time of up to two years.
The agreement was reached during the safety bill’s remaining stages before a vote in the House of Commons. Next, it will move on to review by the House of Lords, where the BBC reports it will “face a lengthy journey.” Sunak says he will revise the bill to include new terms before it reaches the House of Lords, where lawmakers will have additional opportunities to revise the wording.
Reports say that tech executives responsible for platforms hosting user-generated content would only be liable if they fail to take “proportionate measures” to prevent exposing children to harmful content, such as materials featuring child sexual abuse, child abuse, eating disorders, and self-harm. Some measures that tech companies can take to avoid jail time and fines of up to 10 percent of a company’s global revenue include adding age verification, providing parental controls, and policing content.
If passed, the Online Safety Bill would make managers liable for holding tech companies to their own community guidelines, including content and age restrictions. If a breach of online safety duties is discovered, UK media regulator Ofcom would be responsible for prosecuting tech leaders who fail to respond to enforcement notices. Anyone found to be acting in good faith to police content and protect kids reportedly won’t be prosecuted.
Ars could not immediately reach any major tech company for comment on the House of Commons deal, but Reuters reported that executives based in the United States have been closely monitoring updates to the Online Safety Bill.
UK Culture Secretary Michelle Donelan said in a statement that this amendment would prevent senior managers at tech companies from ignoring otherwise enforceable requirements of the Online Safety Bill, giving Ofcom “additional teeth to deliver change and ensure that people are held to account if they fail to properly protect children.”
Last month, Donelan wrote a letter to parents explaining why she was advocating for criminal penalties for any tech leaders who “consent or connive” to skirt Online Safety Bill requirements.
“The onus for keeping young people safe online will sit squarely on the tech companies’ shoulders,” Donelan wrote. “You or your child will not have to change any settings or apply any filters to shield them from harmful content. Social media companies and their executives in Silicon Valley will have to build these protections into their platforms—and if they fail in their responsibilities, they will face severe legal consequences.”