A proposed law in the United Kingdom could see top tech executives face jail time if they fail to comply with information requests from Ofcom, the country’s communications regulator.
The bill, which has been in the works since May 2021, aims to “ensure social media companies are finally held to account and are taking ownership of the massive effect they have on all of our lives,” according to U.K. Minister of State for Security and Borders Damian Hinds. The legislation was introduced in Parliament this week.
Among the new measures in the proposed Online Safety Bill are new guidelines for social media apps to protect children from illegal activity and new rules allowing users to protest a post that was taken down. It also puts requirements on apps to protect journalism and political debate on their platforms and tackle ‘legal but harmful’ content such as exposure to self-harm, eating disorders, and harassment.
Critics say the bill will make the internet less safe, despite the sweeping regulations. Open Rights Group, a U.K.-based digital rights organization, claims the bill is undermining encryption, forcing automated censorship of vital information, and could punish victims of bullying who use anonymity to protect themselves from further harm.
The group blasted the bill, calling it a “festival of inane, poorly thought out and dangerous ideas.”
“Longer term, it will be fuel for the Putins and other authoritarians, who revel in the prospect of identifying everyone and deciding for themselves what is right and wrong, and will be very pleased that the U.K. government is taking essentially the same approach,” they said in a blog post.
The criticism from U.K. groups of the bill aligns with a similar movement in the U.S., which has worked up opposition to the EARN IT Act. The bill, popular among Congress, has positioned itself as a way to fight sex trafficking, but is considered by internet rights groups as an effort to end encryption.
The proposed U.K. legislation gives Ofcom the authority to fine companies “up to ten percent of their annual global turnover” for failing to comply with the new regulations. The bill also gives Ofcom the power to demand information relating to companies’ algorithms so it can gauge how they are protecting the public from harm online.
Executives whose companies fail to meet Ofcom information request requirements could face jail time and could be held criminally liable for destroying evidence, lying to Ofcom interviewers, or for obstructing Ofcom when it enters company offices. The sweeping prosecution measures would not be in effect until two months after the passage of the legislation.
“The internet has transformed our lives for the better,” U.K. Digital Secretary Nadine Davis said in a statement. “It’s connected us and empowered us. But on the other side, tech firms haven’t been held to account when harm, abuse, and criminal behavior have run riot on their platforms. Instead, they have been left to mark their own homework.”
The bill would also require companies to report child sex abuse on their platforms to the National Crime Agency, replacing previous regulations that made reporting optional. The required reports would need to meet strict standards to ensure law enforcement has the information it needs to go after offenders.
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