Big Tech needs online safety regulation – but it must not overreach

online safety big tech

There’s little doubt that Big Tech companies can and should do more to protect their users from harmful content online.

With rapid membership growth in the pandemic, the tech industry is broadly in agreement that regulation now needs to catch up and ensure that social media platforms bear greater responsibility for ensuring a safer online environment for this larger – and often, younger – user base.

The original purpose of the Online Safety Bill – the legislative answer to the three-year-old Online Harms White Paper facing its second reading in the House of Lords – was to do just that.

However, concern at the wide powers granted to the culture secretary, as well as confusion around holding directors accountable for breaches of duty of care and the removal of responsibility for ‘legal but harmful’ content, have further delayed the bill’s arduous journey through Parliament.

Why is this legislation such a test for Big Tech companies in the UK? And is it possible for the bill to fulfil its objective of keeping young people and the vulnerable safe online, without stifling tech innovation or forcing candidates to think twice before taking a job at a social media firm?

The view from the continent

Calls for urgency from campaigners and those within the tech industry are in part because the UK is already well behind the curve on this issue compared to Europe.

In November, the EU passed the Digital Services Act (DSA), which requires social media platforms to tighten content moderation, demonstrate plans to remove illegal content and publish details about their algorithms.

The act – which can fine a company up to 6% of its global turnover for breach – is a prime example of effective use of legislation to tackle illegal content online. When the bottom line is at stake, directors sit up and take notice.

Big Tech companies are already making major changes to their platforms ahead of the legislation coming into force this summer. The EU commissioner in charge of the legislation, Thierry Breton, has warned Elon Musk he has “huge work ahead” to ensure that Twitter complies with the act.

Director liability – the pitfalls

However, following a backbench rebellion last week, the latest version of the UK’s Online Safety Bill now plans to take matters a step further than company fines by making social media bosses criminally liable for repeated failures to address breaches.

Understandably, penalties must be impactful if behaviour is to change. The success of this legislation will be judged on its ability to protect young people and the vulnerable.

However, it is possible to achieve this goal without resorting to the punishment of individuals. Leadership positions at the major players in the tech industry must be filled with our most skilled and talented candidates.

With several tech companies making well-publicised job cuts, the last thing the sector needs is the proposition of criminal liability for directors.

Not only would such a policy do little to solve the current problems, but it would also carry grave ramifications for innovation, investment and the development of new products or services in the online space. Moreover, how directors would be held criminally liable is unclear and raises a number of legal issues that would further convolute the process.

Big Tech’s big test

That is not to say leaders at social media platforms should be absolved from responsibility entirely. The tech sector’s reputation on this issue is currently far from glowing, and these platforms have a responsibility to step up and invest in solutions.

Big Tech has enjoyed more than a decade of exponential growth, operating largely unchecked with optimal market conditions for growth. It is natural that regulation now needs to be allowed to catch up.

The responsibility now falls to social media firms to not only work alongside government regulation and guidelines, but also to proactively remove harmful content and introduce standards of self-regulation which reflect the influence these platforms hold over our everyday lives.


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