Online harms: Government retains option of criminal sanctions against social media companies

Written by Charlotte Newbury on 1 February 2021 in News

Planned legislation would not rule out the potential for criminal sanctions to be brought against senior managers who fail to act on online harms, says chair of DCMS committee 

The government has not ruled out the use of criminal sanctions against social media sites in its fight against online harms, according to Julian Knight, the chair of the Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee.

Speaking at the PublicTechnology Cyber Security Summit on Thursday, the MP for Solihull stated that these sanctions could be leveraged in cases of “grave corporate inaction” and “poor process.”

His words echoed the published outcome of the Online Harms Whitepaper, which states that any criminal penalties would be “consistent with Ofcom’s existing information-gathering powers” in its role as regulator. 

This enforcement power would not be introduced for at least two years after the regulatory framework takes effect, and would be “a last resort” in cases where “industry failed to meet their information-sharing responsibilities”.

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Further measures will be outlined in the Online Safety Bill, which is due to be introduced later this year. The bill will include steps to protect children from inappropriate material, and will seek to tackle illegal activity taking place online as well as addressing the spread of dangerous misinformation. 

The legislation will name Ofcom as the regulator, with a scope to focus on companies “where the risk of harm is greatest”.

Although Knight warned that the success of the regulator, “will be dependent on it being given the resources and tools to make sure the new protections are effective”.

The long-awaited Online Safety Bill comes amidst a growing focus on “fake news” after the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared an “infodemic” – a term coined to refer to the rise of misleading information specifically regarding the Coronavirus pandemic – early last year.

This misinformation and disinformation is particularly prevalent across social media platforms, where Knight’s committee were told during a recent inquiry that algorithms reward negative reactions, and the monetisation of viral content means that the spread of “fake news” can be a lucrative market. 

In a recent call to action, the WHO described how “practising information hygiene, just as we are practicing hand and cough hygiene” is “becoming vital to prevent the spread of the virus.” 

Knight told attendees that research conducted by the DCMS subcommittee on online harms found that, “nearly half of all people in the UK had been exposed to fake news or disinformation about the coronavirus by April 2020.” 

“Our mission became far more urgent. Getting the wrong information means more lives lost,” he said. 

He added that he hoped the incoming legislation would therefore prove to be, “at least a sharp wake up for the social media platforms”.


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