Social media companies could face hefty fines and their employees may be criminally prosecuted for failing to combat online illegal content, according to proposals backed by the British government on Wednesday.
The move comes as the United Kingdom joins France and Germany in trying to force firms like Google and Facebook to take greater responsibility for what people post online, and will include giving the countrys Office of Communications, or Ofcom, regulatory oversight over the new regime.
That key role will go to Melanie Dawes, currently the permanent secretary at the U.K.s ministry of housing, who was appointed as Ofcoms new chief executive on Wednesday.
“We want to make the U.K. the safest place in the world to be online,” Nicky Morgan, the U.K.s culture secretary, and Priti Patel, the countrys home secretary, said in a statement. “By getting it right, we will drive growth and stimulate innovation and new ideas, while giving confidence and certainty to innovators and building trust among consumers.”
As part of the guidance by the British government, social media platforms and other firms that host user-generated content — potentially including publishers — will have a so-called duty of care to protect people from viewing illegal content. It is still unclear exactly how London will define this digital material and what powers Ofcom will have to force companies to comply.
U.K. officials said they were still considering the possibility of fines and criminal prosecutions against individual tech executives if companies fail to comply.
The U.K. government stressed that its proposals would respect peoples freedom of expression and that only five percent of businesses in the country would be affected by its online harm proposals.
While the regulator will have as-yet defined powers to oversee the new rules, London said that it would be up to companies, and not Ofcom, to determine what constituted illegal behavior on their platforms. That must include the ability for users to submit complaints in an easily accessible manner, according to the governments consultation response.
U.K. officials said they were still considering the possibility of fines and criminal prosecutions against individual tech executives if companies fail to comply with the upcoming online harms rules.
New legislation around online harms is likely due to be presented before the summer, with significant lobbying expected over the next 18 months as tech companies, civil society groups and lawmakers battle over how to define what responsibility social media giants have over online content.