I WARNED the web giants. I told them in September that keeping our children safe is my number one priority as Home Secretary. That they needed to do more to protect our young people online. And that if they didn’t then I wouldn’t hesitate to take action.
There has been some progress. For example, in the US I saw experts brought together by Microsoft to build an online anti-child grooming tool. Some companies are waking up to their responsibilities to drive change.
But it’s clear that the industry as a whole has not done anywhere near enough. As promised, I am now forcing them to so. We’re creating an independent regulator to enforce this new regime. It will make sure tech firms fully deliver on their duty of care – prioritising the greatest threats and the most vulnerable users.
It will draw up codes of practice that make it crystal clear what tech firms must do to stay on the right side of the law – whether that’s adopting certain tools or acting within a specified timeframe. The first interim codes will be published later this year.
This regulator will not be some kind of paper tiger. Rather, it will be backed up with a suite of tough enforcement powers that will give it real teeth.
So if companies fail to fulfil their safeguarding obligations they will face serious consequences. We’re consulting to make sure we get it right but we are proposing in a White Paper a series of hard-hitting penalties.
First, that tech companies who don’t comply will be hit with heavy fines, linked not only to the scale of the offence but also to the size of your company – so the bigger your turnover, the bigger your fine.
Second, that offending companies will be named and shamed with public notices about failure to meet expected standards.
Third, websites and apps who refuse to protect users could be blocked in the UK.
And finally, individual senior managers could face criminal charges – becoming personally liable for any major breaches.
Tough penalties, yes. But entirely in keeping with the seriousness of the issue.
They had their chance to put their own house in order. They failed to do so – they failed to protect our children – and I won’t let them fail us again.
It doesn’t matter if you’re a parent or not – we all know that young people need protecting, nurturing, steering in the right direction.
Yes, we need to give them the freedom to explore their world and to realise their ambitions. But we also need to provide a safety net, to defend them against those who would do them harm.
And, as a society, I actually think we’re pretty good at it. If we saw a child being abused or threatened, I’m sure all of us would step in and do something. If we saw them wandering the streets alone at night, we wouldn’t just walk on by and leave them to it. We’d step up. We’d do something. And we’d do something because we know, in our hearts, we know that protecting the vulnerable is our shared responsibility. It’s not controversial, it’s not authoritarian. It’s just what you do in a civilised society,
Yet, for all these good intentions, right now all of us are failing. And I know we are failing because, every day and every night, millions of young and vulnerable people here in the UK still head out alone, there is nobody to help them.
They leave behind our protection and supervision and go online to a place that is a hunting ground for monsters. Where there are child abusers trawling and looking to victimise them. There are gangs that lure young people into violence. There are terrorists who groom new recruits, then encourage them and teach them to carry out the most appalling atrocities. And where the same algorithms that allow people to build communities around shared interests can also lead young people into a devastating spiral of darker and more depraved material.
As parents, and as a society, we can – and we do – warn of the dangers that can lurk online: in games, apps, chat rooms and more. As parents we try to limit screen time, we try to monitor their use of social media, and teach our children how to be safe online. But once they enter the online realm they are beyond our reach. If we want to enjoy the benefits of the online world we have no choice but to put our faith in the tech companies that run that world. We trust them with our children and we rely on them to keep their platforms safe. Right now, the tech giants are not repaying that trust.
Sajid Javid is the Home Secretary and a Conservative MP. He launched the Online Harms White Paper this week.