Social media bosses could be liable for harmful content, leaked UK plan reveals | Media


Social media executives could be held personally liable for harmful content distributed on their platforms, leaked plans for a long-awaited government crackdown obtained by the Guardian reveal.

There has been growing concern about the role of the internet in the distribution of material relating to terrorism, child abuse, self-harm and suicide, and ministers have been under pressure to act.

Under plans expected to be published on Monday, the government will legislate for a new statutory duty of care, to be policed by an independent regulator and likely to be funded through a levy on media companies.

The regulator – likely initially to be Ofcom, but in the longer term a new body – will have the power to impose substantial fines against companies that breach their duty of care and to hold individual executives personally liable.

The debate has been sharpened in recent months by the case of the British teenager Molly Russell and issues raised by the Christchurch shootings. Molly’s parents said she killed herself partly because of self-harm images viewed on social media.

The scope of the recommendations is broad. As well as social media platforms such as Facebook and search engines such as Google they take in online messaging services and file hosting sites.

Other proposals in the online harm white paper include:

Government powers to direct the regulator on specific issues such as terrorist activity or child sexual exploitation.

Annual “transparency reports” from social media companies, disclosing the prevalence of harmful content on their platforms and what they are doing to combat it.

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Co-operation with police and other enforcement agencies on illegal harms, such as incitement of violence and the sale of illegal weapons.

An Ofcom survey last year found that 45% of adult internet users had experienced some form of online harm and 21% had taken action to report harmful content.

In a joint foreword, the home secretary, Sajid Javid, and the secretary of state for culture, media and sport, Jeremy Wright, say it is time to move beyond self-regulation and set clear standards, backed up by enforcement powers.

Companies will be asked to comply with a code of practice, setting out what steps they are taking to ensure that they meet the duty of care – including by designing products and platforms to make them safer, and pointing users who have suffered harm towards support.

The code of practice is also likely to include the steps companies will be expected to take to combat disinformation, including by using fact-checking services, particularly during election periods, and improving the transparency of political advertising.

Regulated firms will be expected to comply with the code of practice – or explain what other steps they are taking to meet the duty of care. However, many questions are left to the regulator to determine.

Theresa May has repeatedly raised the issue of online harm, and the government has gradually shifted its position, from favouring voluntary self-regulation to backing tougher enforcement.

The white paper has repeatedly been delayed. Whitehall sources said the government had been holding it back for several reasons including difficulties finding “appropriate legal advice” due to Brexit.

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Labour’s Tom Watson, the shadow culture secretary, said: “Labour have been calling for a new regulator with tough powers to bring social media companies into line for the last year. The public and politicians of all parties agree something must be done to force them to take responsibility for the harms, hate speech and fake news hosted on their platforms, and the plans for personal liability are promising.”

But he said “some major concerns remained”, including the fact it could take years to implement. “They also do nothing to tackle the overriding data monopolies causing this market failure and nothing to protect our democracy from dark digital advertising campaigners and fake news.”

Wright’s predecessor, Matt Hancock, took an increasingly robust approach to the issue of regulating the internet, which for some years after its creation was regarded as effectively beyond the writ of governments.

With just months or even weeks left of her premiership, May is keen to show that she has made progress in a series of domestic policy areas.

Molly Russell.



Molly Russell. Photograph: Family handout/PA

The death of 14-year-old Russell in 2017 has had a strong impact on the white paper. Her father launched a passionate campaign earlier this year to highlight the fact that self-harm and suicide were widely promoted on Instagram, a fact that he felt contributed to her death.

In January, Hancock, now the health secretary, called on social media firms to remove such content, saying he was specifically moved to issue the demand by Russell’s case.

The Christchurch shootings in March also left their mark on the debate. The attacker used Facebook Live to stream the killings in progress, with thousands watching the attack as it occurred and millions more seeing the video as it was uploaded across the internet over the following day.

That highlighted the specific difficulties in regulating live content on the internet, where the standard “notice and takedown” practice enshrined in EU law is tricky to apply. By the time Facebook was officially notified about the live stream, a suspect had already been arrested, and the video had been downloaded to be shared elsewhere.

The white paper addresses those problems, calling on the regulator to outline specific procedures that companies need to take to keep livestreamed material off the internet, but does not suggest an answer beyond embracing technology as part of the solution.

Regulation of the internet has gradually become popular, even among the companies that would be regulated.

In late March, the Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg issued a public call for international regulation of the web on four fronts: political advertising, data portability, privacy and harmful content. “I’ve come to believe that we shouldn’t make so many important decisions about speech on our own,” Zuckerberg wrote.

A government spokesperson said: “We will shortly publish a white paper which will set out the responsibilities of online platforms, how these responsibilities should be met and what would happen if they are not. We have heard calls for an internet regulator and to place a statutory ‘duty of care’ on platforms, and have seriously considered all options.”

In the UK, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or emailjo@samaritans.org. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international suicide helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.



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