Social media firms face fines and shutdowns under draft UK law

The Online Safety Bill introduces GDPR-style fines and threatens criminal charges against social media executives

The UK government has proposed new regulations that could see social media companies fined up to 10% of their annual turnover, or £18 million, for failing to quash online abuse, with criminal charges levied against senior management. 

The landmark Online Safety Bill, which aims to clamp down on the spread of unadulterated hate speech on platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, will grant Ofcom the powers to enforce a statutory duty of care. This was devised in response to the Online Harms White Paper consultation and has been in development for a couple of years.

The legislation will also contain provisions to encourage free expression and democratic debate online, which Ofcom will also be tasked with defining and enforcing. 

“Category 1” companies, which include the largest and most popular sites, have additional duties to block content that is lawful, but still harmful, while also publishing up-to-date assessments on how they protect freedom of speech.

“Today the UK shows global leadership with our groundbreaking laws to usher in a new age of accountability for tech and bring fairness and accountability to the online world,” said digital secretary Oliver Dowden. 

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“We will protect children on the internet, crackdown on racist abuse on social media and through new measures to safeguard our liberties, create a truly democratic digital age.”

The most alarming aspect of the rules, as far as social media firms are concerned, is the scope within the law to block access to the sites for violations, as well as the prospect of introducing a new criminal offence for senior managers.  

These criminal charges, however, will only be introduced into law if, after a two-year review period, tech companies “fail to live up to their new responsibilities”. They would be levied against managers whose companies don’t comply with Ofcom’s requests for information.

The government has, for many years, been working on introducing a form of statutory mechanism for enforcing rules on social media sites. 

This has run parallel to devising plans to more strictly enforce competition law. Beyond handing Ofcom more powers, the government last month established the Digital Markets Unit (DMU) to regulate the anti-competitive activities of large tech companies. 

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