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Punishment for online harms rule breaches must be proportionate, minister says

The Government has published proposals for new regulation of internet companies.

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A regulator has been charged with ensuring internet firms enforce guidelines to protect users from harmful content (Peter Byrne/PA)

A regulator has been charged with ensuring internet firms enforce guidelines to protect users from harmful content (Peter Byrne/PA)

A regulator has been charged with ensuring internet firms enforce guidelines to protect users from harmful content (Peter Byrne/PA)

The enforcement powers of the new internet watchdog must be “proportionate” to the level of harm caused, digital minister Matt Warman has said.

The Government said on Wednesday it will appoint Ofcom as a new regulator for the sector, charged with ensuring internet firms enforced new guidelines to protect users from harmful content.

Mr Warman indicated that companies which fail to comply could face heavy fines and individual executives could be named and shamed.

But the digital minister played down the prospect of criminal sanctions, saying that would be “an extreme option”.

“The point about the enforcement regime is that it has to be proportionate to the level of harm that is caused,” Mr Warman told BBC Radio 4’s The World At One programme.

“If you look at the regime of the ICO (Information Commissioner’s Office), we have already seen that the very significant fines that they have at their disposal do make a real difference to the behaviour of companies.

“We have already seen in financial services that naming individuals makes a very significant difference to the behaviour of companies. This all comes back to being proportionate and sensible.”

The proposals were published as a first response to a consultation on the Government’s online harms white paper, which was released last year and called for a statutory duty of care for internet companies to protect their users.

Today's statement fails to demonstrate the urgency that is requiredJulian Knight, MP

Platforms will need to ensure that illegal content is removed quickly and minimise the risk of it appearing, with particularly strong action needed on terrorist content and online child sexual abuse.

However, MP Julian Knight, chairman-elect of the Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Committee, said the proposals were not robust enough and must take a “muscular approach”, including the threat of prison sentences.

“The DCMS Committee in the last parliament led calls for urgent legislation to prevent tech companies walking away from their responsibilities to tackle harmful content on their sites,” he said.

“Today’s statement fails to demonstrate the urgency that is required.

“We called for the new regulator to be completely independent from Government which is why we demanded a right of veto over the appointment.

“The regulator must take a muscular approach and be able to enforce change through sanctions that bite.

“That means more than a hefty fine – it means having the clout to disrupt the activities of businesses that fail to comply and, ultimately, the threat of a prison sentence for breaking the law.

“I would expect the DCMS Committee to be given the opportunity to scrutinise all aspects of the forthcoming Bill before it becomes law.”

Internet giants including Facebook, YouTube and Instagram are seen as the main targets of the proposed new rules, which are part of government plans to make the UK the “safest place in the world to be online”.

The Internet Association, the trade body which represents internet firms including Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Twitter, said the companies wanted further debate over what it called “issues of concern”, including the potential punishments for not removing content which could be considered harmful but is not illegal.

Daniel Dyball, UK executive director at the Internet Association, said: “Internet companies are committed to working with government to achieve our shared goals of keeping people safe online and ensuring that the internet continues to deliver benefits to the economy and society.

“We will continue our constructive engagement on the issues of concern that are still under review – for example the scope of regulation, treatment of legal but potentially harmful content, and enforcement powers – and look forward to the full consultation response in the spring.

“These are complex topics, and it is essential that we find a solution that both enhances digital safety and fosters a thriving internet economy.”

The Government is expected to publish a full response to the consultation in the spring.

PA