Social media executives will face fines and the threat of criminal prosecution for failing to protect people who use their services under plans to regulate tech giants in Britain for the first time.
The government is to publish next month its response to a consultation on policing social media companies such as Facebook and Google after Britain leaves the European Union.
Ministers want to place the companies under a statutory duty of care, which will be enforced by Ofcom, the broadcasting watchdog.
The government is also expected to introduce a “senior management liability”, under which executives could be held personally responsible for breaches of standards. US tech giants would be required to appoint a British-based director, who would be accountable for any breaches of the duty of care in this country.
More draconian powers included in the original consultation, such as asking internet service providers to block websites or apps from being used in Britain, are likely to be dropped.
A levy on technology companies is being considered to help to fund the extra staffing and the cost of new regulation. The government wants to ensure that any penalties imposed on technology companies are “proportionate” so that smaller social media developers are not hit by the same level of fines as giants such as Google and Facebook.
Under the plans, Ofcom will draw up legally enforceable codes of practice that spell out what tech companies need to do to protect users from harmful content. They will cover terrorism, child abuse, illegal drug or weapon sales, cyberbullying, self-harm, harassment, disinformation, violence and pornography. Fines for those that breach the codes could be linked to annual turnover or the volume of illegal material online.
Theresa May’s government held a consultation in the summer on proposals to regulate social media companies. Her weak political position and the lack of parliamentary time because of Brexit meant that legislation was never drawn up.
Boris Johnson put forward new duty-of-care laws in the Conservative manifesto. “We will legislate to make the UK the safest place in the world to be online — protecting children from online abuse and harms, protecting the most vulnerable from accessing harmful content, and ensuring there is no safe space for terrorists to hide online,” the document said.
In the Queen’s Speech this month the government pledged to “develop” legislation in response to the consultation, to which there were more than 2,000 submissions. Voluntary codes of practice will be published before the legislation, in an attempt to curb the use of the internet by terrorists and paedophiles. “This will ensure companies take action now to tackle content that threatens our national security and the physical safety of children,” ministers said.
When the consultation on regulating social media companies was published in the summer there were concerns that it could lead to regulation of the press by the back door. The Tories then made a manifesto commitment to “defending freedom of expression and in particular recognising and defending the invaluable role of the free press”.
Nicky Morgan, who stood down as an MP at the election, was reappointed as culture secretary after being given a peerage by the prime minister. She has backed the principle of a duty of care and said at the Tory conference that she would support a regulatory regime like that imposed on the financial sector.
The government has acknowledged that regulating large companies based abroad will be challenging. It said in the consultation: “It is vital that the regulator takes an international approach.”