Lockhart’s cautious welcome for ‘Online Harms’ laws to regulate social media giants

A Northern Ireland MP has given a cautious welcome to government plans to hold social media giants accountable for protecting users from online abuse - but has expressed disappointment at related criminal liability plans.

By Philip Bradfield
Tuesday, 15th December 2020, 4:07 pm
Updated Tuesday, 15th December 2020, 4:27 pm
Carla Lockhart MP
Carla Lockhart MP

Upper Bann DUP MP Carla Lockhart was speaking after UK Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden proposed new laws to regulate social media firms as part of his plans to take “decisive action to protect people online”.

Mr Dowden said “trust in tech is falling” and new rules under the Government’s Online Harms legislation will force social media platforms to “clean up their act”.

Speaking in the House of Commons as the Government published its full response to the Online Harms White Paper, the Culture Secretary said the new laws force the biggest tech firms, such as Facebook and Google, to abide by a duty of care to their users, overseen by Ofcom as the new regulator for the sector.

“Platforms will no longer be able to mark their own homework,” he told MPs.

“To hold them to their responsibilities, I can also announce to the House today that major platforms will be required to publish annual transparency reports to track their progress – this could include the number of reports of harmful content received and the action taken as a result.”

The proposals include punishments for non-compliant firms such as large fines of up to £18 million or 10% of their global turnover – whichever is higher – as well giving Ofcom the ability to block access to platforms in the UK if they fail to stick to the new rules.

However, there has been criticism of the Government’s decision to hold further back punishment – such as criminal liability for senior managers at firms who fail to comply – and planning to only introduce it through secondary legislation.

Mr Dowden told MPs that while the Government hopes not to need to use these powers, they do “remain an option and we will use them if we need to”.

In addition to being required to take steps to address illegal content and activity and extra protections for children who access their services, firms in this group will be asked to assess what content or activity on their platform is legal but could pose a risk of harm to adults, and to clarify what “legal but harmful” content they see as acceptable in their terms and conditions.

Responding to the proposals, Facebook said it welcomed the plans and looked forward to discussing them further with the Government.

Commenting after questioning Mr Dowden in the House of Commons on the proposals, Ms Lockhart said: “These measures are welcome but behind these headline announcements we must see the detail. We need to see what is defined as legal but harmful content. It is also regrettable that the Government has chosen not, at this time, to hold company directors liable for their platforms and further clarity is required on enforcement of criminal sanctions.”

She would be liaising with Government on how encrypted material will be tackled by the new laws, she added.

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