UK minister insists 'no loopholes' in web crackdown amid Musk's 'free speech' fight in Australia

The Online Safety Act, brought in by Rishi Sunak's government, seeks to regulate what social media platforms (such as Elon Musk's X) allow online.

The UK's technology secretary has insisted there are no loopholes in a new law cracking down on social media companies, amid a court battle between Elon Musk's X platform and the Australian government.

Michelle Donelan told ITV News the Online Safety Act is designed in a "really comprehensive" way so social media companies "can't litigate" around the law.

The minister also explained how the government will enforce the law to make the UK the "safest place" to be be online, "especially [for] children on social media".

She was speaking just hours after a court victory for Mr Musk over the Australian government, which had ordered his X platform (formerly Twitter) to remove footage of a bishop being stabbed in a Sydney church.

Mr Musk successfully challenged the order, claiming it was "suppressing Australian’s rights to free speech".

The case has raised questions around the world for government's seeking to regulate what appears online.

Several bereaved parents, including the mother of murdered teenager Brianna Ghey, have been putting pressure on Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to bring in a law to restrict content on social media, which has been blamed for a rise in mental health conditions among young people.

What is the Online Safety Act?

The Online Safety Act is a new law, confirmed in October last year, which the government claims will force social media companies to make the internet safer.

Social media platforms will be required to prevent and rapidly remove illegal content – such as terrorism and revenge pornography – and stop children from seeing harmful material such as bullying or self-harm content by enforcing age limits and using age-checking measures.

The rules also require sites to give adults more control over what they see online, offer clear and accessible ways for users to report problems and be transparent about the dangers posed to children on their sites by publishing risk assessments.

But campaign group Bereaved Families for Online Safety, which includes Esther Ghey and Ian Russell, the father of 14-year-old Molly Russell – who took her own life in November 2017 after viewing harmful material on social media - say it doesn't go far enough.

They want social media companies to face a UK ban if they do not comply with the new rules.

In a letter to Rishi Sunak, they said: "We encourage you to make clear to tech companies they must start to design and build their services in a safe and fundamentally responsible way.

"If companies are not prepared to do so, they should be made to understand there is no longer be a place for them in the UK.”

Could social media really be banned for teenagers?

The prime minister has so far resisted pressure to ban social media for teenagers under the Online Safety Act, but it has been reported he is considering it.

Ms Donelan, speaking to ITV News, explained what sanctions could face social media companies, but denied a ban was part of the plan.

Those that fail to comply will face fines of up to £18 million or 10% of annual global revenue, meaning potentially billions of pounds for the biggest firms.

In the most extreme cases, tech bosses could even face prison.

Ms Donelan said: "We wanted to make sure that the legislation had enough teeth to actually work, and we are saying that if they don't comply, they will face fines of up to 10% of their global turnover. Now that is humongous. It could get in to the levels of billions of pounds. So the deterrent is really there."

She added: "If they fail to comply with the regulator in relation to child sexual abuse and exploitation, some of their executives could even face criminal time."

The minister said there are further steps to disrupt social media firms' business model if they also refuse to comply with sanctions.

"Things like banning advertising etc, so we've really thought about every step to make sure that this is a robust and effective piece of legislation."

Pressed on whether the government could ban social media for teens, Ms Donelan said the Online Safety act is the "beginning of a journey, not a destination".

"We wanted to layer up and and add to it and think about what else can we do to support parents."

She said once the current legislation is fully implemented, "it's only natural that we would then afterwards have a conversation about, do we need to change these going forward?"

What about the Australian government and Elon Musk?

Users of the X platform are likely to have seen posts by its owner about a court battle about "freedom of speech" against the Australian government.

In April, a teenager was charged with terrorism-related charges after stabbing a bishop at a church in Sydney.

Footage of the attack appeared online and Australia’s eSafety Commission ordered social media companies to remove it - not just for Australian viewers, the whole world.

But a judge lifted the ban on Monday.

Asked about the case, Ms Donelan declined to respond directly, saying: "I'm not going to get into the details of something that has, been legal in nature and is involving another government."

But, she added: "We apply pressure where we should, but let's not forget that we are the only country in the world to have such a comprehensive piece of legislation when it comes to online safety, that really has the teeth to make these companies not only sit up and listen, but also act."

The minister said the UK's rules and sanctions are being developed "in a way that is really comprehensive with consultations, etc, so that social media companies can't litigate, they can't get round this, there's no loopholes."

Mr Musk has argued he is standing up for freedom of speech but Australian lawmakers have accused him of arrogance and of lacking a sense of social responsibility.

After the ruling, he posted: “Not trying to win anything. I just don’t think we should be suppressing Australian’s rights to free speech."

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UK is "only country tacking online harms with comprehensive law" - but is it enough?

Ms Donelan said the UK is "the only country in the world to have such a comprehensive piece of legislation when it comes to online safety".

But critics have said the law does not go far enough, and have been campaigning for the government to ban social media apps for under-16s.

The new rules will not come into effect before 2025, after a consultation phase, with Ms Donelan admitting people "won't see [the internet] being radically different" until implementation of the law is complete.

NSPCC Chief Executive Sir Peter Wanless told ITV News the legislation could make a "real difference" for families "so long as it is, implemented and enforced with rigour".

Directing a message to people in government, he said: "Demonstrate that you're serious about this, because for too long, it's been a free for all for these tech companies."

Will Gardner, CEO of charity Childnet International, said online safety represents a "big challenge" but he's "optimistic" the Act will make a difference.

Ofcom, the UK's broadcasting and telecommunications regulator, has said the Online Safety Act will make social media companies "responsible for the first time in law for actually looking at their own services".

Ms Donelan was speaking to ITV News after meeting students and parents at Bow Central Foundation Girls School in east London.

Teenage students who spoke to ITV News admitted there are some downsides to social media for young people but overwhelmingly thought the pros, such as making friends, outweigh the cons, which include mindlessly scrolling.

Students at Bow Central Foundation Girls School in east London thought the pros of social media outweighed the cons. Credit: ITV News

One student said the government should focus on tackling "algorithmic bias" on apps, as well as regulating content.

"Artificial Intelligence is based off of everything that's already online and everything online is already biased," she said.

Which results in it creating content which is "harmful to women or like racist because, again, it stems from what's already online".

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