The Culture Secretary has insisted that the new Government is not planning to water down proposals for new internet safety laws, amid plans for “tweaks” to proposed legislation.
The fate of the Online Safety Bill under a new-look Conservative Government had been somewhat unclear, with the new Prime Minister clarifying earlier this month that the proposed legislation will return to the Commons.
Some concerns had been expressed by charities and campaigners about any delay in passing the legislation, while others had urged the Government to look again at areas that critics say could have a chilling effect on free speech online.
Michelle Donelan, speaking amid a return to the normal cut-and-thrust of politics following the Queen’s funeral on Monday, insisted that the legislation would only need to be tweaked.
The Bill seeks to force the biggest operators, such as Meta, formerly Facebook, and Google, to abide by a duty of care to users, overseen by Ofcom as the new regulator for the sector.
Companies that fail to comply with the laws could be fined up to 10% of their annual global turnover and will also be forced to improve their practices and block non-compliant sites.
The Bill will also require pornography websites to use age verification technology to stop children from accessing the material on their sites, and there will be a duty for the largest social media platforms and search engines to prevent fraudulent advertising.
Critics of the Bill believe the measures risk making social media platforms “online policemen” and that attempts to define “legal but harmful” content are “authoritarian”.
Ms Donelan confirmed that it was the “legal but harmful” wording that officials would be looking it, while also stressing that provisions to protect children would remain unchanged.
She told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I’m not going to announce today exactly how we’ll be changing that because the due process will be to do that in Parliament.
“But that element is in relation to adults. The bits in relation to children and online safety will not be changing. And that is the overarching objective of the Bill, and why we put it in our manifesto.
She continued: “We will be ensuring that children are protected. The main part of the Bill is about making it a priority for social media providers and websites that generate user content and making sure that if they do act in the wrong way that we can stick massive fines on them, which would be very punitive and prevent them from doing so again.”
“I’ve only been in the role two weeks, I will be looking at the Bill in the round. But my clear objective is to get this Bill back to the House quickly, to edit the bit that we’ve been very upfront that we’re editing and to make sure that we get it into law.”
Calling herself a “champion” of free speech, Ms Donelan said: “We’re a Government that will make bold and decisive decisions, but if there’s things that need to be revisited we certainly won’t shy away from that.”
Andy Burrows, head of child safety online policy at the NSPCC, said that the Culture Secretary’s comments were “really encouraging”.
But he warned that further delay could not be tolerated as he called for a “culture change” at the top of tech companies.
“Further delay or watering down of the legislation is inconceivable for families across the UK who continue to pay a terrible price for the failure of tech firms to design their products to be safe for children,” Mr Burrows said.
“Fixing this requires a culture change at the top of these companies which can only come by giving Ofcom the power to hold senior managers personally liable for systems and processes that put children at risk of serious harm.”