Senior tech execs could face prison for breaching online safety laws

Digital secretary indicates government will work with campaigning MPs to make amendments to legislation

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Senior tech executives found culpable in breaches of new online safety laws could face prison terms, digital secretary Michelle Donelan has announced.

In recent weeks, a significant number of Conservative MPs have campaigned in support of a proposed amendment to the Online Safety Bill that would introduce the possibility of criminal liability for senior managers at online firms that fail to adequately protect children from harm. The proposal included sanctions for tech chiefs including prison sentences of up to two years.

In a written parliamentary statement made yesterday, Donelan indicated that the government “will work with” the MPs in question to agree on tweaks to the law that “will deliver our shared aims of holding people accountable for their actions in a way which is effective and targeted towards child safety, whilst ensuring the UK remains an attractive place for technology companies to invest and grow”.

The update – which the secretary of state indicated would be the final amendment made to the legislation – will be put in place while the bill makes its way through the House of Lords. 

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“[It] will be carefully designed to capture instances where senior managers, or those purporting to act in that capacity, have consented or connived in ignoring enforceable requirements, risking serious harm to children,” she said. “The criminal penalties, including imprisonment and fines, will be commensurate with similar offences. While this amendment will not affect those who have acted in good faith to comply in a proportionate way, it gives the act additional teeth to deliver change and ensure that people are held to account if they fail to properly protect children.”

Other MPs had put forward amendments to the bill intended, respectively, to help tackle illegal immigration and prevent young people seeing content promoting so-called ‘conversion therapy’ for LGBTQ+ people.

As an additional anti-illegal immigration measure, government’s final amendment to the online safety legislation will enshrine serious breaches of modern slavery and immigration laws as “priority offences” to be addressed by the new laws, according to Donelan.

LGBTQ+ conversion therapy, meanwhile, will be banned entirely as part of a separate and dedicated new law to be published in draft form “shortly”, the minister said.

“This is a complex area, and pre-legislative scrutiny exists to help ensure that any bill introduced to parliament does not cause unintended consequences,” she added. “It will also ensure that the bill benefits from stakeholder expertise and input from parliamentarians. The legislation must not, through a lack of clarity, harm the growing number of children and young adults experiencing gender related distress, through inadvertently criminalising or chilling legitimate conversations parents or clinicians may have with their children.”


Sam Trendall

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