Tory rebels want social media bosses jailed if they fail to protect children

The Prime Minister is facing a massive back row riot as Conservative lawmakers press for social media bosses to be held criminally responsible for protecting children from online harm.

A number of former cabinet ministers are among those who named an amendment to the Online Security Bill that calls for tougher action.

About 40 rebels, including former interior minister Priti Patel and former Tory leader Sir Iain Duncan-Smith, are calling for the owners of social media platforms to be jailed if they fail to protect children from viewing harmful content.

Ian Russell and Ruth Moss, parents of children who killed themselves after watching harmful content online, are among those campaigning for the UK Government to adopt the proposed change.

Molly Russell investigation

Ian Russell, whose daughter Molly Russell committed suicide, supports change (Joshua Bratt/PA)

The amendment aims to introduce a new clause into the Bill to “criminalize a user-to-service provider’s failure to comply with security duties that protect children” as outlined in the draft law.

A total of 36 Tories supported the change, including former environment secretary Dame Andrea Leadsom and a number of former front desk officers.

The amendment is likely to cause Rishi Sunak a new headache when legislation that has been worked on for five years returns to the House of Commons for discussion on Tuesday.

With Labor backing the amendment, if called to a vote, the rebels are likely to have numbers to defeat Sunak’s premiership first.

Conservative Party Conference 2022

Priti Patel, former interior minister, is among the Tory rebels (Jacob King/PA)

Since Mr. Sunak debuted at No. 10 in October, he’s stepped back in the face of upheavals in his back row, abandoning onshore wind farms and housing planning reforms.

Culture Secretary Michelle Donelan said she “did not rule out” such a proposal.

Speaking to the BBC’s Newscast podcast, he said: “I’m not ignoring any of these changes because I’m working on them and they’re coming in today, you know, looking at what colleagues are putting forward.

“I’m someone who always takes a reasonable approach to this kind of thing. If people have good ideas, just because I didn’t think of them doesn’t mean we won’t do them.”

Earlier, Downing Street said it would “consider” any changes to the Online Security Bill.

When asked if Mr Sunak supports criminal liability for social media bosses for failing to comply with the draft law, the prime minister’s official spokesman said: “Our aim is to hold social media platforms accountable for harmful content and at the same time ensure that the UK remains a great country to invest in and a place to grow a tech business.

“We are confident that we can achieve both of these things.

“We will carefully consider all proposed changes to the Online Security Act and will determine its position as the reporting phase continues.”

Molly Russell investigation

Molly Russell was 14 years old when she committed suicide after seeing material related to anxiety, depression, self-harm and suicide (Family Statement/PA)

In its current form, the new internet safety law will require tech companies to remove illegal material from their platforms, with a particular emphasis on protecting children from viewing harmful content.

Social media platforms and other user-generated content-based sites that break these rules will face massive penalties from Ofcom, the industry’s new regulator.

But the currently proposed law only holds tech bosses responsible for not providing information to the watchdog.

Children’s charity NSPCC is helping run a campaign to hold administrators criminally responsible for failing to protect young people.

In a survey she conducted, she found that 66% of UK adults who gave opinions said they would want social media managers to be prosecuted for any failure that seriously harmed children.

Molly Russell was 14 when she committed suicide after seeing harmful material on social media linked to anxiety, depression, self-harm and suicide.

Her father, Ian Russell, said: “In Molly’s investigation, the world saw the extent of the incredibly distressing content she was exposed to as a vulnerable girl with a mental disorder.

“Still no one takes any personal responsibility for how social media contributed to his death.

“The inclusion of senior executive liability in the Online Safety Bill is an opportunity to stop this from happening again and focus the minds of tech bosses on ensuring their platforms are safe online spaces for children.

“I urge the Minister of Culture and the Prime Minister to listen to the campaigners and a growing number of their own MPs and to accept this important change to the proposed law.”

Moss, who was 13 when her daughter Sophie Parkinson died in 2014, said after seeing posts about suicide and self-harm: “This is a real opportunity for the government, which I hope will strengthen the Online Safety Bill. It’s unbelievable what we went through when we lost our daughter Sophie. We are preventing other families from experiencing the tragedy.”

MP Miriam Cates, reportedly the chief Tory rebel behind the change, said on Instagram: “It’s clear that social media executives aren’t going to wake up one morning and decide to prioritize children’s safety.

“To bring about a drastic change in culture on Big Tech’s boards, we must hold senior executives individually and personally accountable for failures to protect children.”

Lucy Powell, shadow culture secretary for the Labor Party, said: “The government watered down and emptied the Online Safety Act, thinking it would appease its own party, but they didn’t read the room.

“From Andrew Tate to disinformation and incitement, calls for stronger regulation and tougher sanctions for powerful social media platforms only grow and grow.

“Labour has called for criminal liability for those who run these companies throughout the bill’s adoption, and we will join forces around the house to strengthen it as such.”

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