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Online Safety Bill: PM Faces Backbench Rebellion On Key Manifesto Pledge

The government’s plans to implement more stringent rules for websites that “host user-generated content” may well fail to pass through the House of Commons, with 36 Conservative MPs threatening to vote down the government’s proposals.


Tory rebels, amongst whom are former Home Secretary Priti Patel and former party leader Iain Duncan Smith, want the government to add an amendment to the Online Safety Bill which would introduce criminal convictions for the heads of social media companies if it can be proved that they have not actively tried to reduce harmful content on their websites.


Downing Street is cautious to promote such a policy, which would make this legislation some of the most far-reaching online protection policies currently in situ, with the potential for the impact on business preventing the Prime Minister from committing to a more aggressive stance. A spokesperson said that: “We aim to hold to account social media platforms for harmful content, while also ensuring the UK remains a great place to invest and grow a tech business”.


The legislation comes in the wake of an increase in child suicide rates, with the inquest into the death of 14-year-old Molly Russell citing that content she had seen on social media sites had ultimately contributed to her suicide. Without the proposed amendment, the bill would allow the UK government to fine companies up to 10% of their profits should social media bosses fail to remove harmful content from their sites; continued abandoning of rules could lead to platforms being blocked in the UK altogether. 


Not only will the bill aim to see a decrease in potentially harmful content, such as images and descriptions of self-harm in a variety of forms, but it is also hoped that there will be a reduction in illegal material such as terrorism or child sexual exploitation. Companies will also be advised to remove content that could be seen as racist, sexist, or otherwise discriminatory, although this will not be directly legislated against, with ministers being careful to draw a line between “hurt feelings” and genuinely illegal material.


Along with the aforementioned Tory rebels, opposition parties believe the bill to be “toothless” unless harsher punishments are introduced for social media titans, with 10% of profits representing a tiny dent in the funds of the biggest platforms such as Meta or Twitter; Zuckerberg’s social media empire reported profits of $30-32.5 billion in the third quarter of 2022 alone.


The PM is relying on the rest of his MPs remaining loyal, with the bill set to pass by around 30 votes, although there is the possibility of him providing concessions to those rebels as occurred regarding onshore windfarms in November 2022.


Whatever happens, when the bill returns to the House on Tuesday, the tide is certainly turning against social media sites. This will likely be the first in many new chapters of online safety legislation, and just as likely that said legislation will only get harsher as time wears on.


Cover image available from GOV.UK

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