Websites to be fined over ‘online harms’ under new government proposals

Internet sites could be fined or blocked if they fail to tackle “online harms” such as terrorist propaganda and child abuse, under government plans. The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) has proposed an independent watchdog that will write a “code of practice” for tech companies.

Senior managers could be held liable for breaches, with a possible levy on the industry to fund the regulator. But critics say the plans threaten freedom of speech.

The Online Harms White Paper is a joint proposal from the DCMS and the Home Office. A public consultation on the plans will run for 12 weeks.

The paper suggests:

  • establishing an independent regulator that can write a “code of practice” for social networks and internet companies
  • giving the regulator enforcement powers including the ability to fine companies that break the rules
  • considering additional enforcement powers such as the ability to fine company executives and force internet service providers to block sites that break the rules

Outlining the proposals, Culture Secretary Jeremy Wright said: “The era of self-regulation for online companies is over.

“Voluntary actions from industry to tackle online harms have not been applied consistently or gone far enough.”

Discussing potential penalties on BBC Breakfast, he said: “If you look at the fines available to the Information Commissioner around the GDPR rules, that could be up to 4% of company’s turnover… we think we should be looking at something comparable here.”

What are ‘online harms’?

The plans cover a range of issues that are clearly defined in law such as spreading terrorist content, child sex abuse, so-called revenge pornography, hate crimes, harassment and the sale of illegal goods.

But it also covers harmful behaviour that has a less clear legal definition such as cyber-bullying, trolling and the spread of fake news and disinformation.

It says social networks must tackle material that advocates self-harm and suicide, which became a prominent issue after 14-year-old Molly Russell took her own life in 2017.

After she died her family found distressing material about depression and suicide on her Instagram account. Molly’s father holds the social media giant partly responsible for her death.

Media caption after Molly Russell took her own life, her family discovered distressing material about suicide on her Instagram account

Home Secretary Sajid Javid said tech giants and social media companies had a moral duty “to protect the young people they profit from”.

“Despite our repeated calls to action, harmful and illegal content – including child abuse and terrorism – is still too readily available online.

What do the proposals say?

The plans call for an independent regulator to hold internet companies to account.

It would be funded by the tech industry. The government has not decided whether a new body will be established, or an existing one handed new powers.

The regulator will define a “code of best practice” that social networks and internet companies must adhere to.

As well as Facebook, Twitter and Google, the rules would apply to messaging services such as Snapchat and cloud storage services.

The regulator will have the power to fine companies and publish notices naming and shaming those that break the rules.

The government says it is also considering fines for individual company executives and making search engines remove links to offending websites.

It is also consulting over blocking harmful websites.