Social media companies will be legally required to protect their users – with senior management held personally liable if they do not comply with new rules around harmful content, according to a long-awaited Government white paper.
The joint proposal on online harms from the Home Office and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) says a regulator will be appointed to ensure internet firms meet their responsibilities, which will be outlined in a mandatory duty of care.
The duty of care will require firms to take more responsibility for the safety of users and more actively tackle the harm caused by content or activity on their platforms. The regulator will have the power to issue “substantial fines, block access to sites and potentially impose liability on individual members of senior management”, the proposal says.
The Government is currently consulting on whether to create a new regulator or use an existing one, such as Ofcom, to enforce the new rules.
The proposed measures are part of a Government plan to make the UK one of the safest places in the world to be online, and comes in response to concerns over the growth of violent content, encouraging suicide, disinformation and the exposure of children to cyberbullying and other inappropriate material online.
Prime Minister Theresa May said the proposals were a sign the age of self-regulation for internet companies was over.
“The internet can be brilliant at connecting people across the world – but for too long these companies have not done enough to protect users, especially children and young people, from harmful content,” she said.
“That is not good enough, and it is time to do things differently. We have listened to campaigners and parents, and are putting a legal duty of care on internet companies to keep people safe.”
The proposed new laws will apply to any company that allows users to share or discover user-generated content or interact with each other online, the Government said, applicable to companies of all sizes from social media platforms to file hosting sites, forum, messaging services and search engines.
It also calls for powers to be given to a regulator to force internet firms to publish annual transparency reports on the harmful content on their platforms and how they are addressing it.
Companies including Facebook and Twitter already publish reports of this nature.
Last week, Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg told politicians in Ireland that the company would work with governments to establish new policies in a bid to regulate social media.
The Home Secretary, Sajid Javid added that tech firms had a “moral duty” to protect the young people they “profit from”.
A 12-week consultation of the proposals will now take place before the Government will publish its final proposals for legislation. The Government said the proposed regulator would have a legal duty to pay due regard to innovation, as well as to protect users’ rights online.