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UK’s Online Safety Bill says tech bosses could face jail time

The House of Commons of the United Kingdom has passed the controversial Online Safety Bill, and it seems the hardliners have the upper hand as the proposed law threatens to jail tech executives for failing to protect children online.

The potential prison sentence for tech managers who would fail to stop children from seeing harmful or abusive material online was added to the wording of the Online Safety Bill after a backbench rebellion, BBC reported.

Nearly 50 Tory MPs wanted to amend the bill and introduce two-year sentences for managers of sites hosting user-generated content who would fail to take “proportionate measures” to stop material harmful to children from spreading online.

Criminal liability

And they did. The opposition – Labour – also supported the amendment, so the ministers had to make a deal with the rebels and promised to introduce similar proposals.

Currently, the law only makes managers of tech companies criminally liable for failing to give information to UK media regulator Ofcom. But the new draft proposes personal criminal liability for the bosses – the supporters say it’s the only way to make child safety provisions effective.

The document says “proportionate measures” could be age verification, taking content down, and parental control. If social media bosses ignore these rules, they could be jailed or fined.

“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,” Michelle Donelan, The Culture Secretary, said in a written statement.

According to critics, though, both the fixation on child safety and several other measures actually threaten privacy and private communications online. They urge the UK Parliament to reject the current draft.

Risk of over-moderation

The Center for Data Innovation, a think tank studying data, technology, and public policy, says that there are “fundamental problems” and “fatal flaws” with the bill – even if the government made some improvements, such as dropping restrictions on “legal but harmful” content for adults to better protect free speech.

“Holding senior tech employees criminally liable if they fail to protect children on their services will spur online services to over-moderate content potentially harmful to children for all users to avoid the risk of jail time for their employees,” the Center commented.

Experts also call on both the UK government and the European Commission – which has prepared its own proposal to restrict the proliferation of child sexual abuse material online – to think about the value of end-to-end encryption and how it would suffer if monitoring for illegal content invaded user privacy.

However, UK’s former Home Secretary Priti Patel, who also supported a proposal to jail tech bosses, has been calling encryption a “betrayal” of children because it allegedly limits the ability of police to investigate child abuse.

"A great many child predators use social media platforms such as Facebook to discover, target, and sexually abuse children. These protections need to be in place before end-to-end encryption is rolled out around the world. Child safety must never be an afterthought,” Pratel said in October 2022.

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