The introduction of criminal penalties for tech executives in the online safety bill could be copied by undemocratic regimes, the industry said before an influential report this week.
A joint committee of lawmakers and peers reviewing the bill will release its findings on Tuesday after the Culture Secretary promised to speed up the criminal liability provisions for senior executives.
Nadine Dorries said it made “foolishness” for tech companies to be given a two-year grace period before criminal liability was introduced. Instead, liability would be incurred within three to six months of the bill coming into force, she said.
In an example of an industry counter-offensive, UK trade body techUK said criminal sanctions could provide a “pretext” for undemocratic regimes to introduce punitive measures based on the legislation.
Antony Walker, deputy managing director of techUK, said: “There are examples around the world of undemocratic regimes where threats against top executives have been used as a means to force companies in a way that suits a particular government. . The UK has an opportunity to lead by example by not providing these pretexts to other regimes to just say, “Well, if the UK does it, it’s the gold standard. We’ll do that too, but then apply a somewhat different standard.
Twitter issued a similar warning. Speaking to the joint committee in October, the social media firm’s director of public policy strategy Nick Pickles said the “hostage laws” – so called because they could be used to attack companies by putting pressure on staff members – could be adopted by illiberal regimes.
In its submission to the committee, Google said the threat of criminal penalties would encourage administrators to remove content “on a large scale” rather than risk falling under the law.
Dorries told the committee that failure to tackle harmful algorithms – which tailor an internet user’s experience and could steer them into “rabbit holes” of content – could result in lawsuits against executives. “Kill your harmful algorithms today and you will not be subject – to named persons – to criminal liability and prosecution. “
Under the bill, senior executives face a fine or up to two years in prison if they fail to comply with “requests for information” from Ofcom, the communications watchdog that will oversee it. .
According to the bill, a criminal offense will be committed if an executive does not comply with an Ofcom request for information, or if the response is materially false or encrypted.
Supporters of the bill believe the clauses are broad enough to force tech companies to follow the law closely. However, attorneys for Harbottle & Lewis said the government’s deferred powers memo focused on information-related offenses and that they had “seen nothing in the memo to suggest that liability might s ”. extend to other violations of the law ”.
Dorries said she would consider the committee’s recommendations “very seriously”, with several issues being debated, including including the inclusion of fraudulent advertisements within the scope of the bill and the introduction of protective measures. more stringent childhood such as a strict age check.
The Online Safety Bill applies to businesses that host user-generated content, covering services from social media networks to video-sharing sites. It imposes on these companies an obligation of diligence to protect users against harmful content, under penalty of substantial fines imposed by Ofcom.
The duty of care is divided into three parts: preventing the proliferation of illegal content and activities such as child abuse images, terrorist material and hate crimes such as racial abuse; ensure that children are not exposed to harmful or inappropriate content; and, for tech companies like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, ensuring adults are protected from legal but harmful content.
This last category of content must be defined by the culture secretary, after consultation with Ofcom, then examined by parliament before being promulgated in secondary law.
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Culture, Media and Sports said: “We are putting in place proportionate regulation for technology companies to give them the legal obligation to protect their customers, as companies have done. in other sectors. It is vital that the most senior technology leaders take their new responsibilities seriously, and our bill will underscore that. ”