New laws to tackle 'wild west' internet will make UK 'safest place in the world' to be online, Matt Hancock claims

Social media firms face billions in fines if they do not comply, warns government

Chris Baynes
Sunday 20 May 2018 19:20
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Culture Secretary Matt Hancock invited 14 social media companies to meet with him, and only four turned up

New laws will be introduced aimed at tackling the internet “wild west” and making Britain the “safest place in the world” to be online, the culture secretary has said.

The largest social media companies could be fined billions of pounds if they do not take steps to protect users, Matt Hancock warned.

A new code of practice to tackle online bullying, stricter age verification requirements, and a regular internet safety transparency report to keep tabs on online abuse could also be included in new legislation.

Measures to tackle online harm could be funded through an industry-wide levy on firms such Facebook and Twitter.

It is understood the levy, first proposed by the government last year, will be subject to a further round of consultation with the sector and charities before a final decision is made.

Mr Hancock said work with social media companies to protect users had led to some positive steps being taken, but the performance of the industry overall had been mixed.

Out of the 14 largest social media firms invited to discuss the issue at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), only four turned up, he told The Andrew Marr Show.

The culture secretary said the snub had given him “a big impetus to drive this proposal to legislate through”, because it showed the government does not have the power it needs.

“Before then, and until now, there has been this argument that you should work with the companies, do it on a voluntary basis; they’ll do more that way because the lawyers won’t be involved,” he told presenter Emma Barnett.

Launching a consultation on what measures should be used, Mr Hancock said: “Digital technology is overwhelmingly a force for good across the world and we must always champion innovation and change for the better.

“At the same time, I have been clear that we have to address the wild west elements of the internet through legislation, in a way that supports innovation. We strongly support technology companies to start up and grow, and we want to work with them to keep our citizens safe.

“People increasingly live their lives through online platforms, so it’s more important than ever that people are safe and parents can have confidence they can keep their children from harm.”

The government has outlined few specific details about what kind of regulation could be used to safeguard internet users.

Mr Hancock said he wanted to tackle “both legal and illegal harms” and ensure codes of conducts are “enforced properly”.

“Ultimately I hope that we get to a position where everybody has to have their age verified, otherwise they are not allowed on,” he added.

He warned social media firms could be fined up to 4 per cent of their global turnover under a data protection bill currently going through parliament.

A government consultation last year found users felt powerless to deal with online safety concerns, with four in 10 experiencing abuse online and 60 per cent witnessing inappropriate content.

DCMS and the Home Office are jointly working on a white paper that is expected to be published in the autumn.

Home secretary Sajid Javid said: “Criminals are using the internet to further their exploitation and abuse of children while terrorists are abusing these platforms to recruit people and incite atrocities.

“We need to protect our communities from these heinous crimes and vile propaganda, and that is why this government has been taking the lead on this issue.

“But more needs to be done, and this is why we will continue to work with the companies and the public to do everything we can to stop the misuse of these platforms. Only by working together can we defeat those who seek to do us harm.”

Alex Holmes, deputy chief executive officer at young people’s charity The Diana Award, said: “We look forward to seeing government, industry, businesses, schools and the wider children and charity sector workforce continue to work together to make the internet a safer place for all.”

Barnardo’s chief executive officer Javed Khan said: “We have long seen the harm that online can bring to children’s lives; our own child sexual abuse services saw a 38 per cent increase last year in children referred. Online can be a force for good, but the ease of exploitation of children must be tackled.

“We urge government in the white paper to consider legislation that ends the era of technology self-regulation and puts children’s safety at the heart of the online world. Taking action now is vital to protect the next generation of children.”

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