Government rows back on idea of making social media sites legally responsible for content

Written by John Johnston on 11 February 2019 in News

Matt Hancock says putting legal responsibility on sites would mean 'the whole concept would collapse'

Matt Hancock has signalled a government climbdown after he insisted ministers have no plans to make internet giants legally responsible for content posted on their platforms.


The health secretary said the likes of Facebook and Google would “collapse” if they were to be treated in the same way as other publishers. Bur last week week, suicide prevention minister Jackie Doyle-Price said she backed the introduction of legislation which would see the firms held criminally liable for the content they publish.

Doyle-Price had said “nothing was off the table” ahead of the publication of a white paper setting out the Government’s plans to crack down on harmful content posted online.

In an interview with the BBC, she said: “We could make them responsible for their content by classing them as publishers…I do view them as publishers and I would like the law to hold them to account on that basis.”

Her comments came after the death of 14-year-old Molly Russell, who committed suicide after viewing images related to self-harm, depression and suicide on image-sharing sites Instagram and Pinterest.

But speaking to the BBC’s Today programme, Hancock rowed back on the suggestion, saying it would make it impossible for social media companies to surivive.

He said: “The whole concept would collapse if you made them legally liable for everything on their site. For instance, I wouldn’t be able to send out a tweet because they would be legally responsible for it. So, you need something new and in-between. That is where this concept of a duty of care comes from. You can’t deliver a lot of this against the social media companies because the nature of the technology. They have the algorithms, but what you can do is require them to act in a socially responsible way. My sense is they now want to do that, but they need help and support.”

Instagram boss Adam Mosseri said last week that he accepted Instagram was “not where we need to be on the issues of self-harm and suicide”, as he threw his weight behind plans for a new statutory duty of care.

The social media chief said: “That idea sounds very much in line with the responsibility to keep people safe. What that looks like is a decision for policymakers to make.”

A spokesperson for the Prime Minister said: “Matt Hancock has set out the position. We’ve had constructive discussions this week and what we have seen is a willingness to solve the problem. We’re setting out our own white paper shortly in internet safety and there will be more detail there as to what we would like to introduce to make this even safer.”

About the author

John Johnston is a political reporter for PublicTechnology sister publication PoliticsHome, where this article first appeared


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