Priti Patel calls for stronger Online Safety Act with power to jail tech bosses

Priti Patel - Andrew Boyers/PA

Priti Patel – Andrew Boyers/PA

Priti Patel is among some 30 Tory lawmakers urging the Government to give powers to imprison social media bosses who fail to protect children from online harm.

The former interior minister supports an amendment to the Online Safety Act, which stipulates that named executives at tech companies face up to two years in prison if they fail to comply with legal mandates to protect children from harm such as child abuse, suicide and self-harm.

About 14 Tory MPs initially signed the amendment, which was also supported by the Labor Party, but the number is thought to double as the Bill passes Parliament.

Ms Patel said: “The public expects senior executives at tech companies to be held fully accountable for the content posted on their platforms and to be proactive in preventing harm and child sexual exploitation.

“We must ensure that these new laws in the Online Security Bill are effective in protecting children and vulnerable people from online harm, and this proposed change is widely supported.”

“We’ve seen repeated failures of big technology”

Ministers have previously denied such requests, and the Bill currently only holds social media bosses criminally liable if they fail to cooperate with official watchdog Ofcom, for example by refusing to provide information for their investigation.

But Tory MP Miriam Cates, who discussed the change, said: “We’ve seen big technology fail repeatedly to protect children from the horrors of sexual exploitation, pornography and content that drives them to self-harm and suicide, and unfortunately Online Safety. In its current form, the Bill won’t stop it.

“The only way to secure the change we desperately need is to make senior executives personally accountable for failures to protect children, and as such, I urge all lawmakers to support this change that will include senior executive responsibility in the Online Safety Bill.”

The change is supported by former cabinet ministers David Jones and Andrea Leadsom, and former ministers Tim Loughton, Mark Francois and Sir Edward Leigh.

“The consequences of non-compliance are life changing”

A survey of 2,031 adults by YouGov showed that four out of five (81 percent) seek technology executives who are legally responsible for keeping children out of harm’s way from social media.

A survey for children’s charity NSPCC found that two-thirds (66 percent) said top executives should be prosecuted for failures that seriously harm children.

Ruth Moss, whose daughter Sophie died after seeing harmful content on social media, said: “If companies are deliberately breaking the law and putting the lives of children like my daughter at risk, then of course senior executives should take criminal responsibility.

“The consequences of disobedience are life-changing for kids like Sophie. Criminal responsibility drives the right behavior in those with the most responsibility. It works in other industries, and there’s no reason why great tech executives should be treated differently.”

Shadow Culture Secretary MP Lucy Powell said: “The Labor Party has long called for a strengthening of the Online Safety Act, especially when it comes to the responsibility – including criminal liability – of social media bosses. Without these sanctions, there is a real risk of a UK regulator being helpless.

“Still, instead of enforcing the law, the Government recently gutted and watered down the Bill, bailed out social media companies and allowed harm, abuse and hatred to continue.”

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