‘If a company decides the UK is an unattractive place to be – do we want that company in the UK?’

Former digital secretary urges government to ensure it sticks to tough rules set out in online safety legislation

Credit: UK Parliament/CC BY 3.0

Former digital secretary Nicky Morgan has said the UK should not back down on tough new rules that could see tech bosses sent to jail for failing to protect children online.

Following a rebellion by dozens of Conservative MPs, a recent amendment was made to the Online Safety Bill that will make senior managers at tech giants criminally liable if their platforms persistently fail to protect children from harm on the internet and they ignore regulatory warnings.

Rishi Sunak agreed to alter the draft legislation – despite concerns extending criminal liability for a breach of child safety duties could see fewer services available to young people, or some providers choosing to withdraw from the UK market altogether.

But Morgan told The Rundown – a podcast from PublicTechnology sister publication PoliticsHome – that it was right that ministers took a stand on child protection, and that “politics has now got to think about the kind of internet that we want”.

She added: “My take on it would be that if a company decides that the UK is an unattractive place to be – because they might have liability for not safeguarding, particularly the young against harmful content – then my question back is: do we want that company in the UK? Tech companies are obviously going to be innovative, we want to support those companies, but equally I think we have got to make a stand now.

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“Whether we’re talking about companies that pollute our rivers, whether we’re talking about companies that encourage underage people to smoke or to vape, whether we’re talking about protecting the young in other ways, I think we are, as a country, taking a stand now.”

Morgan acknowledged that, when applying regulation to “big, multijurisdictional companies the UK can only do so much”. This is particularly the case when the US – where many of these companies are headquartered – is “a long way from coming up with legislation”.

Last week Sunak created the Department of Science, Innovation and Technology, which will take over jurisdiction for the Online Safety Bill, as well as supporting ambitions outlined last month by chancellor Jeremy Hunt “to make Britain the world’s next Silicon Valley”.

But Morgan was unsure if the big social media success firms to have come out of Silicon Valley like Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram, have a real desire to clamp down on harmful content.

While she felt the Online Safety Bill, which has been repeatedly delayed, already included measures to “come down potentially very hard” on tech companies, how it works in practice will be the real test. 

“They will email us, those of us who are speaking out on the bill, and they will ask for meetings, and they will say that they welcome regulation, they want to change,” she explained. “And undoubtedly, some actually do, but the proof will be over the next couple of years about the choices they make in terms of designing platforms, designing safety, features, the way that they are going to make money through advertising or the use of algorithms, their interactions with Ofcom for example, how open those are going to be.”

Morgan added: “I think this is an important moment and I hope that companies will respond.”

Another former digital secretary – Nadine Dorries – has also spoken out since leaving office and warned the government against watering down online safety legislation. Dorries was scathing about mooted plans to drop portions of the bill which would require social media companies to tackle “legal but harmful” content, such as posts promoting suicide or self-harm.

Speaking in November, the former minister said her replacement – the incumbent, Michelle Donelan, who now holds the title of secretary of state for science, innovation and technology – had “been in the job five minutes and does not understand enough about” the legislation.

“The government now, and certainly my successor, is going to have a lot of explaining to do on why she thinks that posting encouraging people to self-harm is something that should be allowed to happen,” she said. 

PublicTechnology staff

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