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Tech leaders could face jail time and big fines under UK's Online Safety Bill

The UK's ambitious but controversial legislation would give regulators wide-ranging powers to crack down on tech and social media giants.digital and social media
The UK's ambitious but controversial legislation would give regulators wide-ranging powers to crack down on tech and social media giants.digital and social media   -   Copyright  Canva
By Euronews  with AP

Tech bosses would face criminal prosecution if they fail to comply with proposed UK rules aimed at ensuring people are safe online.

The UK government on Thursday unveiled in Parliament its ambitious but controversial Online Safety Bill - draft legislation that would give regulators wide-ranging powers to crack down on digital and social media companies like Google, Facebook, Twitter and TikTok.

Authorities in the United Kingdom are the vanguard of a global movement to rein in the power of tech platforms and make them more responsible for harmful material such as child sex abuse, racist content, bullying, fraud and other harmful material that proliferates on their platforms.

Similar efforts are underway in the European Union and the United States.

While the internet has transformed people’s lives, “tech firms haven’t been held to account when harm, abuse and criminal behaviour have run riot on their platforms,” UK Digital Secretary Nadine Dorries said in a statement.

“If we fail to act, we risk sacrificing the wellbeing and innocence of countless generations of children to the power of unchecked algorithms”.

The bill faces debate in Parliament, where it could be amended before lawmakers vote to approve it as law.

The government has already toughened the legislation since it was first written after a committee of lawmakers recommended improvements.

"Tech firms haven’t been held to account when harm, abuse and criminal behaviour have run riot on their platforms
Nadine Dorries
UK Digital Secretary

Changes include giving users more power to block anonymous trolls, requiring porn sites to verify users are 18 or older, and making cyberflashing - sending someone unsolicited sexual images - a criminal offence.

Crackdown on online scams

Tech platforms would also need to put in place "proportionate systems and processes" to prevent fraudulent advertisements and scams from appearing on their pages.

The UK is not the only country cracking down on online scams.

Australia's competition watchdog filed a lawsuit against Facebook's parent company Meta on Friday, alleging the social media giant failed to prevent scammers using its platform to promote fake ads featuring well-known people.

Jail time and big fines

Tech executives would be criminally liable two months after the UK law comes into effect, instead of two years afterwards as proposed in the original draft.

Companies could be fined up to 10 per cent of their annual global revenue for violations.

There’s also a wider range of criminal offences that could result in prison sentences of up to two years in the updated draft.

Initially, tech executives faced prison time for failing to quickly provide regulators with accurate information needed to assess whether their companies are complying with the rules.

Now, they would also face it for suppressing, destroying or altering information requested or not cooperating with regulators, who would have the power to enter a tech company’s premises to inspect data and equipment and interview employees.

Removing harmful content

Tech companies would have to proactively take down illegal content involving revenge porn, hate crime, fraud, ads for drugs or weapons, suicide promotion or assistance, human trafficking, and sexual exploitation, on top of the originally proposed terrorism and child sexual abuse material.

The government said it would outline categories of harmful but legal material that the biggest online platforms such as Google and Facebook would have to tackle, instead of leaving it up to the “whim of internet executives.”

That’s aimed at addressing concerns of digital activists who worried the law would crimp freedom of speech and expression because companies would be overzealous in removing material that upsets or offends people but isn’t prohibited.