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Tech firms to be held to account as government boosts online safety

Written by: Emma Lunn
Amendments to the Online Safety Bill will require social media sites and tech firms to prevent users being exposed to harmful content.

The additions to the bill comes as it was introduced to parliament today, with a second reading scheduled for Friday.

The Online Safety Bill aims to protect children from harmful content such as pornography and limit people’s exposure to illegal content, while protecting freedom of speech.

The bill will require social media platforms, search engines and other apps and websites allowing people to post their own content to protect children, tackle illegal activity and uphold their stated terms and conditions.

Under the new rules, company executives will be criminally liable if they don’t comply with Ofcom information requests two months after the law begins, rather than the two years previously proposed. Managers can also be found criminally liable if they destroy evidence, fail to attend Ofcom interviews or give false information, or obstruct Ofcom’s work.

The regulator will have the power to fine companies failing to comply with the laws up to 10% of their annual global turnover, force them to improve their practices and block non-compliant sites.

Nadine Dorries, digital secretary, said: “Given all the risks online, it’s only sensible we ensure similar basic protections for the digital age. If we fail to act, we risk sacrificing the wellbeing and innocence of countless generations of children to the power of unchecked algorithms.”

Under the additions to the bill, social media platforms will only be required to tackle ‘legal but harmful’ content, such as exposure to self-harm, harassment and eating disorders, set by the government and approved by parliament.

Previously they would have had to consider whether additional content on their sites met the definition of ‘legal but harmful’ material.

This change removes any incentives or pressure for platforms to over-remove legal content or controversial comments and will clear up the grey area around what constitutes legal but harmful.

Rocio Concha, Which? director of policy and advocacy, said: “The inclusion of paid-for advertising in the Online Safety Bill is a vital move which should force the biggest social media firms and search engines to use their sophisticated technology to better protect their users from the devastating effects of scams perpetrated by fraudsters on their platforms.

“The Online Safety Bill must guarantee that Ofcom has the support and resources it needs to hold companies to account and take strong enforcement action where necessary. We await full details of the bill to assess whether it goes far enough in protecting consumers from fake and fraudulent adverts.”

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