Online safety bill: Ministers compromise on jail for rogue social media bosses to avoid Tory revolt

Many Conservative MPs want tech bosses to face prison if they fail to protect children from harmful content and rather than face a parliamentary rebellion over its new Online Safety Bill, the government has now agreed.

Social media bosses who ignore or deliberately flout rules aimed at protecting children could face jail under plans drawn up as Rishi Sunak bowed to pressure from rebel Tories.

The prime minister was facing a major backbench rebellion as 50 MPs put their names to an amendment to the Online Safety Bill.

The compromise plan put forward by Culture Secretary Michelle Donelan would hold bosses accountable “in a way which is effective and targeted towards child safety”.

Ms Donelan held talks with the rebels to thrash out the compromise and told MPs she is “sympathetic” to their aims. She said the Government’s proposals, based on the system used in Ireland, would introduce criminal liability for bosses who fail to comply with a notice to end contravention of the law.

Culture Secretary Michelle Donelan Credit: Stefan Rousseau/PA

The final government 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”, she said. “The criminal penalties, including imprisonment and fines, will be commensurate with similar offences. “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.”

Ms Donelan also promised changes to crack down on people smugglers who use social media to promote small boat crossings across the English Channel – so-called “TikTok traffickers”.

She said organised crime groups “are increasingly using social media to facilitate migrant crossings”.

The Cabinet minister said “aiding, abetting, counselling, conspiring etc those offences by posting videos of people crossing the Channel which show that activity in a positive light could be an offence that is committed online and therefore falls within what is priority illegal content”.

“The result of this amendment would therefore be that platforms would have to proactively remove that content,” she added.

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The shift in the Government’s position came as the Online Safety Bill was going through its final stages in the Commons.

Former cabinet ministers, including ex-home secretary Priti Patel and former Conservative leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith, were among those backing the change to the Online Safety Bill put forward by Tory MP Miriam Cates.

With Labour supporting it too, failure to find a compromise would have seen Mr Sunak on course for his first major defeat in the Commons.It marks the third time Mr Sunak has backed down in the face of uprisings on his back benches since entering No 10 in October, having ditched onshore wind farms and housing planning reforms.

Richard Collard, associate head of child safety online policy at the children’s charity, previously said: “By committing to senior manager liability the culture secretary has sent a strong and welcome signal that she will give the Online Safety Bill the teeth needed to drive a culture change within the heart of tech companies that will help protect children from future tragedies.

“The government has rightly listened to the concerns raised by MPs and we look forward to working with ministers to ensure the final legislation holds senior managers accountable in practice if their products continue to put children at risk of preventable harm and sexual abuse.”

Ian Russell, the father of schoolgirl Molly Russell, who took her own life after viewing harmful material on social media, said the threat of imprisonment is “the only thing” that will make the bosses “put safety near the top of their agenda”.

“I think that’s a really important thing in terms of changing the corporate culture at these platforms,” he told BBC’s Newsnight.