The UK will hit the world’s biggest tech companies with multibillion-pound fines if they fail to rapidly remove illegal and harmful content from their platforms.
The government published its long-awaited plans for online safety legislation on Tuesday, setting out new “duty of care” requirements for platforms such as Facebook, YouTube and WhatsApp. The laws will require the companies to “remove and limit the spread of illegal content” including child sexual abuse and terrorist material.
The UK’s “online harms” proposals, which have been more than 18 months in consultation, come as Silicon Valley faces tougher rules from Brussels in EU legislation being introduced this week, while antitrust authorities in the US and EU are also taking aim at Facebook, Amazon and Google.
Ofcom, the UK’s independent media regulator, will enforce penalties for tech companies up to £18m, or 10 per cent of annual global turnover, whichever is higher.
The proposed fine is larger than the 4 per cent previously suggested by the government. For Facebook, 10 per cent of last year’s revenues would be $7bn.
Ofcom will also have the power to block non-compliant services from the UK and impose criminal sanctions on senior managers for repeat offences, although this measure would only come into force if the government felt the deterrent of the fines and other potential punishments were not working.
The new rules will apply to any sites that host user-generated content, including video games and online marketplaces, but reader comments on news websites will be exempt.
The UK’s Competition and Markets Authority last week unveiled separate proposals for a new tech regulator, the Digital Markets Unit, that could also impose multibillion-pound penalties on the world’s most valuable tech companies if they break competition rules.
Culture secretary Oliver Dowden said the government was “unashamedly pro tech” but “we are entering a new age of accountability for tech to protect children and vulnerable users, to restore trust in this industry, and to enshrine in law safeguards for free speech”.
The Online Safety Bill will designate tech platforms into categories for their duty of care requirements based on their reach and type of service. Those with the largest presence are expected to include Facebook, TikTok, YouTube, Instagram and Twitter, while dating services and private messaging apps are more likely to be placed in a lower category.
But the government does not intend to force services, such as WhatsApp and Apple’s iMessage, to break their encryption to reveal the contents of messages. One government official said: “The tech companies will need to demonstrate that they can mitigate the risk to users — for example by stopping adults being able to contact children and sending them messages on end-to-end encrypted services.” The move would require some form of online age verification, though it was unclear how this would be enforced.
Tech industry officials said they were also frustrated by the lack of clarity on the government’s proposals for private messaging services, which have been among the most contentious parts of the UK’s debate over “online harms” rules.
The Open Rights Group said the proposals’ potential impact on freedom of expression was “deeply troubling”. “The government would not dare regulate the press in the way it intends to regulate the public speech of millions of citizens,” said Jim Killock, who heads the ORG.
Twitter said: “We support regulation that is forward-thinking, understanding that a one-size-fits-all approach fails to consider the diversity of our online environment.”
YouTube said online safety was its “top priority”, with more than 10,000 content moderators working across Google.
Facebook and TikTok did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The UK’s latest plan to force tech companies to patrol online content comes as the EU unveils its own rules for taking down illegal content. The EU’s Digital Services Act is expected to adopt a similar two-tiered system that puts greater onus on the biggest tech groups.
But Dom Hallas, executive director at the Coalition for a Digital Economy, which represents tech start-ups, said the UK’s Online Safety bill threatened to reduce competition.
“These plans risk being a confusing minefield that will have a disproportionate impact on competitors and benefit big companies with the resources to comply,” he said.