Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, Instagram and Youtube are regularly criticized for not taking decisive enough action against harmful content on their platforms. In the UK, a new law is set to make tech company executives personally liable in the future and threatens them with prison sentences.

The draft of the new online safety law was submitted to lawmakers for their perusal on 03.17.22 and is expected to be passed later this year. The law is intended to increase pressure on Internet companies to take proactive and swift action against illegal and harmful content on their platforms. UK media regulator Ofcom will be given wide-ranging powers in this regard, with the ability to impose significant fines of up to 10% of global annual revenue, block entire websites and personally prosecute individual executives in the event of non-compliance.

The bill at a glance

There is a particular focus on content that promotes terrorism, suicide, revenge pornography, and child sexual abuse. New aspects were also added to the original 2019 draft:

  • The prosecution of cyber-flashing as a criminal offense.
  • Mandatory age verification for pornographic content.
  • The prevention of online fraud.
  • The possibility and right of appeal if a user believes their posts have been wrongfully removed.
  • Prosecution should be possible as early as two months after entry into force, not after two years as originally planned.

In addition, the draft provides for the extension to legal, but nevertheless potentially harmful content. What exactly this harmful content is is to be defined later. News content and journalistic reporting are to be excluded from the regulations, according to the DCMS (Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport).

Companies must cooperate

But it’s not just non-compliance that could have serious consequences in the future; when the law comes into force, companies will be obliged to cooperate with the regulatory authority. Ofcom would then be given far-reaching powers, could demand access to business premises and inspect data and equipment to gather evidence. Ofcom would also have to be granted insight into the algorithms that are crucial for displaying content. False statements, destroying evidence and obstructing the authority would thus also be punishable.

UK online safety law to set global standard

In a press release, the DCMS calls it a “milestone” in the fight for a digital age that is safer for users and where tech companies must take more responsibility. And Ben Packer, partner at law firm Linklaters even sees the possibility of a pioneering role. “The U.K. government certainly hopes that the Online Safety Act will set a global standard,” Packer said in a statement. “As many platforms around the world seek to maintain a broadly consistent user experience, this may eventually be the case.”

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