Social media bosses will escape prosecution if child sexual abuse and illegal content promoting suicide can remain on their platforms thanks to a loophole in new online safety laws.
The flaw in the online safety bill, revealed by the Telegraph, will mean executives of tech companies won’t face jail time even if they continue to fail to remove illegal material about child abuse, suicide and self-harm.
Regulator Ofcom will instead be able to issue fines of up to 10% of global turnover, which critics say is not enough of a penalty for technology firms worth billions of pounds.
The disclosure sparked protests from charities, MPs and activists including Ian Russell, the father of 13-year-old Molly Russell, who took her own life after being bombarded with self-harm and suicidal content online.
Sir Peter Wanless, chief executive of the NSPCC, said it was “bewildering and disappointing” that the government was letting tech executives “off the hook if they fail to tackle the horrific crimes of child sexual abuse happening on their sites”.
Mr Russell told The Telegraph: ‘It is inexplicable that social media bosses could be allowed to evade personal responsibility for exposing children to suicide and self-harm, material so harmful that the Government has already recognized it should be made illegal”.
“We urgently need a strengthened online safety bill that protects young people from the dismissive approach of tech companies and commercial interests that continue to prioritize profit over the safety of our children.”
The row centers on an amendment tabled last week by the government after a rebellion by Conservative MPs who demanded that social media bosses be held criminally liable for content on their platforms.
Top leaders face prison sentences of up to two years if they persistently violate their duty to protect children from harm.
But the fine will only cover non-illegal content, such as pornography, and material about eating disorders and self-harm that doesn’t cross the threshold of illegality.
Child sexual abuse and content promoting suicide or self-harm will not be covered, prompting the new backlash.
Miriam Cates, the Tory MP who led the rebellion, said: ‘The government’s amendment does not cover some of the most serious harms such as child sexual exploitation and it needs it if it is to have the full impact in protecting children. So I hope ministers broaden the scope of the amendment during its passage of the Lords.”
“Very strong” powers.
A government spokesman said the online safety bill contained “very strong” powers to tackle child abuse, including requiring social media bosses to use specific types of technology to remove them from their platforms.
They could also face prison terms of up to two years if they knowingly or recklessly make false reports to the National Crime Agency about any child abuse on their site.
However, Sir Peter said: “Child sexual abuse is permeating online services on a record scale and having a devastating impact on children and families in every corner of society. It is imperative that technology companies play their role in preventing, detecting and addressing the problem.
“It is vital that the scope of this amendment be extended to include child sexual abuse for the online safety bill to offer world-leading protections to children in the UK.”