LONDON — British regulators could soon have the power to fine and block the sites of social media giants like Facebook, TikTok and Twitter for failing to remove harmful content under new legislation.
Unveiled Tuesday, the proposals are part of the U.K. government's bid to force tech giants to rid their platforms of illegal and toxic content. Executives could be held personally liable for failing to respect a legally-binding duty of care. It comes as authorities around the world clamp down on Big Tech.
Social media services that host user-generated content or allow people to talk to others online will be required to remove and limit the spread of content that contains child sexual abuse, terrorist material or suicide, according to the government. They will also need to do more to ensure children aren't exposed to grooming, bullying or pornography.
Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Twitter and other popular social networks will be required to establish clear terms and conditions which set out how they tackle content that is legal but could cause significant physical or psychological harm to adults, such as misinformation about coronavirus vaccines.
British media watchdog Ofcom will have the power to fine companies up to £18 million ($24 million) or 10% of their annual global revenues, whichever is higher, for failing to comply. Ofcom would also be able to block non-compliant services from being accessed in the U.K.
"I'm unashamedly pro tech but that can't mean a tech free for all," U.K. Digital Secretary Oliver Dowden said in a statement. "Today Britain is setting the global standard for safety online with the most comprehensive approach yet to online regulation."
"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."
Less than 3% of businesses in the U.K. fall within the scope of the online safety rules, the government said. The new regulatory framework will have to be voted in by U.K. Parliament before it becomes law.
Dowden added: "This proportionate new framework will ensure we don't put unnecessary burdens on small businesses but give large digital businesses robust rules of the road to follow so we can seize the brilliance of modern technology to improve our lives."
Tech giants respond
Rebecca Stimson, Facebook's head of U.K. public policy, said the firm has "long called for new rules to set high standards across the internet."
"Protecting people from harm without undermining freedom of expression or the incredible benefits the internet has brought is a complex challenge," she added. "We look forward to continuing the discussion with government, Parliament and the rest of the industry as this process continues."
Twitter said it was "deeply committed to keeping people safe online."
"We support regulation that is forward thinking, understanding that a one-size-fits all approach fails to consider the diversity of our online environment," a Twitter spokesperson said in a statement.
Meanwhile, TikTok said it looked forward to reviewing the proposals and working with the government to "strengthen online safety."
"At TikTok, safety isn't a bolt-on or a nice-to-have, it's our starting point to building a creative, diverse community," a spokesperson for the Chinese-owned company said.
The announcement of the new rules comes as regulators around the world seek to get tougher on Big Tech.
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Later on Tuesday, the European Union will announce plans for sweeping new digital reforms aimed at making sure tech giants take more responsibility for the content on their platforms. The rules are also expected to prevent such firms from promoting their own services while simultaneously competing with other services.
According to reports, tech companies could face fines similar to those being proposed in the U.K. — up to 10% of annual global turnover — for breaches of the new EU rules.
"In recent years, there has been a recognition from governments, society and the tech firms themselves that there is a need to take coordinated action to tackle harmful content online," said Ben Packer, partner at global law firm Linklaters. "Today's proposals from the U.K. and the EU are the most ambitious measures announced anywhere."
"Though the regimes differ in many ways, both impose new and potentially onerous duties on online platforms to protect their users from harmful content. They also both propose heavy sanctions for those who fail to comply, including fines of up to 10% of a company's global turnover."