Tech Executives Face Prison For Online Safety Breaches

Evil parliament (c) pisaphotography, Shutterstock 2014

UK Government reaches agreement with Conservative MPs who had sought to amend the controversial Online Safety Bill

The UK Government’s proposed legislation to keep children safe from harmful online content and hold tech CEOs accountable, has nudged one step closer.

The controversial Online Safety Bill was debated in the UK parliament on Tuesday, before moving to the House of Lords, where it will face further scrutiny.

The Bill includes provisions whereby tech executives could face the possibility of prison time for breaching online safety standards.

Online Safety Bill

This has resulted in some pushback from the tech sector.

For example Rebecca MacKinnon from the Wikimedia Foundation, the non-profit group that hosts Wikipedia, told BBC News that the Online Safety Bill contains “harsh” criminal penalties that will affect not only big corporations, but also public interest websites such as Wikipedia.

It condemned the UK government’s attempt to bring in protections against harmful online content and called it a “limit freedom of expression”.

MacKinnon also called on the UK to follow the EU’s Digital Services Act, which she says separates the difference between tech giants and community-minded business models like Wikipedia.

MP agreement

It comes after after the UK government this week reached an agreement with Conservative MPs who had sought to amend the Online Safety Bill.

The legislation is a highly controversial bill that aims to make the internet safer for kids by enforcing age verification requirements and putting more responsibility on tech platforms to shield minors from harmful content.

But the latest agreement could mean severe punishment for company leaders who deliberately fail to protect kids from online harm.

Michelle Donelan, secretary of state for digital, culture, media and sport, said in a statement Tuesday that the changes “deliver our shared aims of holding people accountable for their actions in a way which is effective and targeted towards child safety, whilst ensuring the UK remains an attractive place for technology companies to invest and grow.”

Conservative MPs had proposed an amendment to impose criminal liability, including the possibility of a jail term of up to two years, on senior managers for failing to meet the child safety requirements.

Donelan said in the statement that she’s “sympathetic to the aims of the amendment,” but believes the bill already includes other provisions for holding senior managers accountable.

Still, she said, the final amendment “will be carefully designed to capture instances where senior managers, or those purporting to act in that capacity, have consented or connived in ignoring enforceable requirements, risking serious harm to children.”

Criminal penalties would include imprisonment and fines “commensurate with similar offences,” she said.

“While this amendment will not affect those who have acted in good faith to comply in a proportionate way, it gives the Act additional teeth to deliver change and ensure that people are held to account if they fail to properly protect children,” Donelan said.

Bill opposition

Critics of the legislation fear the age verification stipulations will lead to invasions of privacy and have a chilling effect on speech.

Other critics argue the bill simply shifts the fundamental responsibility of keeping children safe online away from parents, and on to the shoulders of CEOs located in other parts of the world with different legal systems and protections.

But it should be noted that legislation and bills to protect kids in similar ways have also been introduced in the United States with bipartisan support.

For example California passed its own Age-Appropriate Design Code, that was modelled off of UK guidelines, that similarly puts more of the onus on platforms to protect kids from online harms.