The first former culture secretary has joined a Tory backbench rebellion to push ministers to introduce new powers to jail social media bosses if they fail to protect children from online harms.
Maria Miller, a strong supporter of tougher regulation to combat online abuse, has become one of at least 47 Tory MPs backing an amendment to make tech bosses criminally liable for online harms on their platforms with a maximum jail sentence of two years for breaches of their duty of care to children.
Ms Miller, also a former minister for women and equalities, has herself put forward amendments to the Online Safety Bill that would make the sharing of intimate images of people without their consent a criminal offence punishable with up to three years in jail.
She has previously warned that abuse, bullying and harassment on social media platforms is “ruining lives, undermining our democracy and splintering society”.
Michelle Donelan, the Culture Secretary, is considering concessions in an attempt to head off the rebellion, potentially the biggest since Rishi Sunak became Prime Minister. With Labour backing the amendment, the Tory rebels could wipe out his 67-strong majority if the amendment is put to a vote on Tuesday.
‘I’m not ruling out amendments’
One option would be new legal duties that would make named directors at tech firms responsible for ensuring their companies complied with new online safety laws. But it is unclear whether ministers will bow to backbench demands for executives to be held criminally liable.
Ms Donelan said: “I’m not ruling out any of those amendments because I’ve been working through them…I’m somebody that always takes a sensible approach…If people have good ideas, just because I didn’t think of them doesn’t mean that we’re not going to do them.”
TechUK, which represents the social media firms, is lobbying ministers and MPs with warnings that the prospect of criminal prosecutions will deter investment and could lead to companies pulling out of the UK.
Labour piled pressure on Mr Sunak on Friday by publicly backing “strong criminal sanctions”.
“This is a David and Goliath situation, with one small regulator taking on huge tech giants, they need all the weapons in their armoury,” said Lucy Powell, Shadow Culture Secretary.
“Tech bosses will only sit up and take notice of this Bill if they are on the hook for failing to keep people safe on their platforms.”
Police chief backs amendment
The current plans limit sanctions to fines worth up to 10 per cent of a firm’s global turnover, equivalent to £9.7 billion for Mark Zuckerberg’s Meta, the owner of Facebook, Instagram and Whatsapp. Criminal sanctions would only apply if company directors refused to cooperate with any Ofcom investigation into potential breaches.
The amendment extending criminal penalties to content was drawn up by Tory MPs Miriam Cates and Sir Bill Cash and is now backed by at least 14 former ministers including Iain Duncan Smith, the former Tory leader, Priti Patel, the former home secretary, and Andrea Leadsom, the former business secretary.
On Friday, a Tory policing chief became the first to publicly back the plans. Donna Jones, police and crime commissioner for Hampshire, said: “Fining big tech companies is not enough. It must go further with criminal prosecution leading to prison time for those found to be knowingly allowing harmful content to be available.”
Baroness Kidron, the architect of the online children’s code, also backed the plan, saying it was “absolutely ludicrous” that social media firms could only be criminally punished for failure to provide information about a harmful error but not for their failure to protect children from the catastrophe.
She was a member of the joint Commons-Lords committee chaired by Damian Collins, the former digital minister, which produced a draft bill proposing senior tech firm managers should be subject to a new criminal offence for “repeated and systemic failings” to protect users.
The Government rejected the proposals but Baroness Kidron said it should be reinstated as a last resort. “It only has to be there as a stick when all else has failed,” she said.