U.K. to Toughen New Social-Media Law, Threatening CEOs With Jail Time

From a Wall Street Journal story by Sam Schechner and Max Colchester headlined “U.K. to Toughen New Social-Media Law, Threatening CEOs With Jail Time”:

British legislators are set to approve a draft of a extensive new social-media bill that could see the chief executives of major tech firms held criminally liable if they don’t protect children from certain content online.

As the U.K. moves closer toward enacting new legislation that technology companies say is too restrictive, its Online Safety Bill aims to better protect adults and children from viewing certain online content, including fraud, revenge porn and sexual abuse.

The proposed law, expected to win approval this week by the House of Commons, will force tech companies to remove content deemed illegal or content that is barred by their own terms and conditions, or face fines or legal action. The bill would then go to the U.K.’s upper chamber, the House of Lords, in February, where it could be revised further, and become law by year-end.

The bill is part of a new wave of regulation aimed at large technology companies such as Alphabet Inc. or Meta Platforms Inc.—led in part by the European Union, which passed its own social-media law last year called the Digital Services Act—which will start being enforced on very large social media and search companies later this year.

Under the draft U.K. bill, Ofcom, the U.K.’s communications regulator, can fine companies who break the law by up to 10% of their global annual revenues. The British government is modeling its law on similar legislation that was passed last year in Ireland.

Tech companies including Instagram owner Meta, Alphabet Inc.’s Google and Twitter Inc. have said they support the bill’s aims of protecting children and adults online, but are concerned that its strictures will have unintended consequences for free speech and digital privacy.

“Ultimately, under the risk of large penalties, the Bill as it stands risks creating an incentive for the mass removal of any content which may fall foul of these rules,” Meta wrote in comments it submitted to Parliament in December, echoing concerns from some press groups and online reference website Wikipedia.

At the moment, the bill doesn’t contain provisions allowing for criminal prosecution of tech executives. But in recent days, the British government faced a rebellion by a group of Conservative lawmakers who feared the law didn’t do enough to hold executives at media giants to account for protecting children.

To assuage lawmakers, the government pledged it will amend the law in the House of Lords to say that bosses could face two years in jail if they willfully ignore warnings from British regulators about illegal videos or images on their platforms that are deemed to threaten children. The details of this change to the law are expected to be fleshed out later in the year, but government officials say the bar for any eventual prosecution will be high.

Meta and TikTok declined to comment on the proposed amendment. Google and Twitter didn’t respond to a request for comment.

“The proposed amendment extending senior management liability is extremely broad and not tied to any specific obligations, as such it will be perceived as a very open-ended risk by investors,” said Antony Walker, deputy chief executive of techUK, an industry group.

One area of contention is around age-verification provisions aimed at ensuring younger people can’t access pornography or other inappropriate material. The U.K. government says most children under 13 years old are barred by platforms but this is seldom enforced. Tech companies say the tools could cut off some adults and children who don’t have the ability to verify themselves using online tools, and risk exposing their identities.

The bill also aims to offer adult users more control over what content they can see online.

Along with requirements to verify identities so that users can filter out unverified users, the provisions could end up cutting off some people—effectively lowering tech companies’ user numbers. “As currently drafted, this requirement is too rigid and would likely restrict accessibility for many segments of the population,” Meta wrote in its comments.

The U.K. bill in some ways echoes the EU’s Digital Services Act. But in some ways it goes further, tech companies say. It would require risk audits for harmful and illegal material that could be more frequent and cover separate areas from those in the EU’s law. The provisions that would create criminal liability for executives also go beyond the EU’s rules, which focus on company compliance.

TikTok, a subsidiary of ByteDance Ltd., which faces the threat of restrictions in the U.S., says it has worked with the U.K. government on the bill. It also says it has implemented changes that would go some way toward complying with some of its elements, such as allowing users to filter out content on specific topics, as well as a system to prevent content with mature themes from reaching users under 18 years old.

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