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Online Harms Bill: Social media companies more fearful of fines than of criminal liability, says Oliver Dowden

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Social media and other internet companies are much more likely to be kept in line by fear of multi-billion pound fines than they are by criminal sanctions, Oliver Dowden has claimed, contrary to warnings from internet safety organisations.

The Culture Secretary told the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee (DCMS) that while he had taken campaigners’ stances “very seriously” when creating forthcoming internet safety laws, he had not felt it necessary to include it in primary legislation.

Although the draft Online Safety Bill – which was published on Wednesday – gives regulator Ofcom the power to slap tech giants with multi-billion pound fines, it stops short of bringing previously suggested criminal sanctions against senior management.

Instead, a new criminal offence for senior managers has been included as a deferred power that will be introduced if tech companies fail to live up to their new responsibilities.

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Social media firms won’t prioritise child safety until Ofcom is given the teeth to make them, warns NSPCC

A review will take place at least two years after the new regulatory regime is fully operational, the Government said.

Facebook, Instagram, Google, TikTok and YouTube are among the companies that will be subject to stricter regulation under a new statutory duty of care to UK users, particularly children, forcing platforms to assume greater responsibility for tackling potentially harmful content.

 Ofcom will be given the power to issue fines of up to £18m or 10 per cent of global annual turnover, whichever is the higher, to companies found to be falling short of the new safety rules or to block services from being accessed in the UK altogether.

Mr Dowden said that while he believed social media firms were “much more motivated by financial consequences than they are by the criminal liability of individual people,” he would seek to enact the secondary legislation necessary to take legal action if the fines didn’t work.

“I would rather we didn’t impose new criminal law, I think we should have a very high bar for that position,” he said.

Child rights campaigners have called for criminal sanctions to be involved in primary legislation (Photo: PA)

“I took the lobbying and representation that I’ve seen from many different groups about the need for criminal sanctions very seriously. I didn’t believe that they had sufficiently made the case to introduce it immediately in primary legislation, but I thought that it made a strong enough case that we should reserve that power.”

Child safety groups and other organisations have long claimed criminal liability would be the most effective way to protect vulnerable youngsters online and hold tech giants to account.

Andy Burrows, head of child safety online at the NSPCC, said that waiting for regulation to fail before the Government would enact criminal sanctions would result in years of children facing avoidable grooming and abuse.

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Online Safety Bill: ‘Social media should not be allowed to buy their way out of regulation’, warn campaigners

“This is a unique chance to move beyond the status quo that sees action taken only after serious harm has occurred, but deferring liability for senior managers misses the opportunity to finally put children first,” he told i.

“The Culture Secretary should learn from other regulated sectors that hold named managers responsible for the safety of their products, with the threat of fines, censure and, as a last resort, criminal sanctions leading to a culture of compliance.”

Ofcom should be given all the tools it needs to change the behaviour of the tech giants to force them to finally prioritise child safety over profit, Tony Stower, director of external engagement at digital children’s rights group 5Rights Foundation, said.

“Without individual director liability, it is hard to see how the largest tech companies, whose enormous wealth and cash reserves can easily absorb even the heaviest fines, will be sufficiently incentivised to comply with the duty of care,” he told i.

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