Tech bosses could face jail after Tory MPs revolt on bill

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Politics
Rishi SunakGetty Images

Tech bosses could face jail time for failing to protect children online, after the government conceded to a backbench rebellion.

Nearly 50 Tory MPs wanted to amend the Online Safety Bill to introduce two-year sentences for managers who fail to stop children seeing harmful material.

The government had been facing defeat, with Labour also supporting the move.

Under a deal with the rebels to stave off defeat, ministers have now promised to introduce similar proposals.

It is the third time that Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has backed down in the face of rebellious backbenchers since taking power in October.

It follows concessions late last year on the issues of housing targets for councils and restrictions on onshore wind farms.

The bill would oblige managers of sites hosting user-generated content, including social media sites, to take “proportionate measures” to stop children seeing harmful material.

The draft law says this could be through measures such as age verification, taking content down, and parental controls.

Currently the bill would only make managers criminally liable for failing to give information to media regulator Ofcom, which is set to gain wide-ranging powers to police the internet under the new law.

Making managers liable for a failure to comply with broader safety duties in the bill was rejected after a consultation ahead of the bill’s introduction, which concluded it could make the UK tech sector less attractive.

Companies failing in their legal duties, including protecting children, could be fined up to 10% of global revenue.

However, the Tory rebels had argued that only personal liability for company bosses would ensure the child safety provisions are effective.

Regulator with ‘teeth’

Rebels have agreed to withdraw their amendment after talks with Culture Secretary Michelle Donelan over the weekend.

In exchange, the government has now agreed to introduce an amendment of its own along similar lines when the bill gets to the House of Lords – giving ministers more time to work on the wording.

The government’s amendment has not yet been published, but ministers are expected to set out further details on Tuesday.

Sir Bill Cash, a leading Tory rebel, told the BBC the agreement with ministers was a “huge step forward”, adding that senior managers in the sector “will not want to run the risk of going to jail”.

Other Conservatives supporting the amendment include former Tory leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith, and other ex-ministers including former home secretary Priti Patel.

Labour’s shadow culture secretary Lucy Powell said that Ofcom needed “sufficient teeth that Silicon Valley bosses would sit up and take notice”.

But she also accused ministers of scaling back the bill significantly when it came to protections for adults.

The Online Safety Bill was introduced in March under Boris Johnson, and has been repeatedly altered during its passage through Parliament.

Its progress was further delayed last month when the government decided to make more changes to the bill.

After its passage through the House of Commons, it is expected to face a lengthy journey through the House of Lords.

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