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MPs Remain Cautious Over Tech Boss Crackdown In Online Safety Bill Despite Government Climbdown

MPs Remain Cautious Over Tech Boss Crackdown In Online Safety Bill Despite Government Climbdown

(Alamy)

4 min read

MPs who pushed for social media bosses to face criminal sanctions have said they are pleased the government has “listened”, but many are still cautiously awaiting full details of the government’s approach.

Rishi Sunak was forced to concede to rebel MPs this week after over 50 backed an amendment calling for tough sanctions for social media bosses who persistently fail to ensure safety on their platforms.

The Commons amendment was due to be put to a vote on Tuesday evening and was backed by Labour, meaning the government’s 67-strong majority risked being overturned. 

Ahead of the vote, Culture Secretary Michelle Donelan said in a written statement that she was “sympathetic to the aims of the amendment” and would work with MPs “to table an effective amendment in the Lords” – prompting rebels to drop the amendment.

Tory MP Miriam Cates, who spearheaded the campaign alongside Sir Bill Cash, said she was “delighted” that ministers had agreed to introduce criminal liability for social media bosses.

“I’m grateful to the Secretary of State for the positive and constructive way she’s worked with us to meet our shared goal of strengthening protection for children,” she said.

“Only by having senior managers criminally liable for failings at their companies will we be able to ensure they are prioritising children’s safety.”

But some MPs who backed the amendment said they are cautiously awaiting the full details of what will be tabled in the Lords before they pass judgement.

“I think the Government has listened and brought forward a workable suggestion,” one Tory MP told PoliticsHome.

“So far we have a written statement referring to an amendment the government will table during ping pong with the Lords, so happy to take government at their word now – but we must see the amendment text ASAP.”

Another said they would not be “fully satisfied” until they had seen the details of the government’s plan as they wanted to ensure the measures were “tough”.

A third MP said that Donelan had “clearly listened and understood the issues”, citing the fact that similar legislation had already been effectively implemented in Ireland. 

Lee Anderson, Conservative MP for Ashfield, who backed the amendment, said there needed to be “stiffer penalties” for social media giants following his own legal battle over harmful content.

“I am an MP with great backing and the resources to take these tech giants on, however, the average person in the street is not so fortunate. Therefore, there has to be stiffer penalties,” he said.

After a weekend of negotiations between both sides, the government agreed to implement legislation targeting social media chiefs who “have consented or connived in ignoring enforceable requirements, risking serious harm to children”.

Those found guilty under the new offence would face “criminal penalties, including imprisonment and fines” similar to those of existing offences, Donelan said. The original amendment had called for jail terms of up to two years under the offence.

Shadow Culture Secretary Lucy Powell raised doubts over the scope of the government’s approach claiming “enforcement is now over a narrower set of measures after the Government gutted much of the Bill before Christmas”.

Powell, commenting on the government’s u-turn over Online Safety Bill amendments, said: “We’ve got no idea where the government truly stand on these issues. They’ve flip flopped, one minute massively weakening the Bill, the next minute forced into a minor strengthening."

The government’s shift on the matter was welcomed by many charities. Children's charity the NSPCC said the change “will help protect children from future tragedies”.

"By committing to senior manager liability, the culture secretary has sent a strong and welcome signal that she will give the Online Safety Bill the teeth needed to drive a culture change within the heart of tech companies that will help protect children from future tragedies,” Richard Collard, associate head of child safety online policy at the charity said.

"The government has rightly listened to the concerns raised by MPs and we look forward to working with ministers to ensure the final legislation holds senior managers accountable in practice if their products continue to put children at risk of preventable harm and sexual abuse."

Andy Burrows, adviser to the Molly Rose Foundation, said the measures were “really the only way in which we can expect the tech companies to really focus on compliance”.

The Molly Rose Foundation was set up in the memory of teenager Molly Russell, who took her own life in 2017, aged 14. An inquest concluded the impact of social media had contributed to her death. Her family have since campaigned for tighter regulations on social media.

“It's really vital to deliver the culture change we need to do. The reason that many social media platforms are unsafe for children right now is because they haven't built child safety into their business models,” Burrows added.

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