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UK Government to Speed Up Criminal Sanctions for Tech Bosses With New Online Safety Laws

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  • The U.K. Government announced Wednesday that executives could now face prosecution or jail time within two months of the new Online Safety Bill becoming law, instead of two years as it was previously drafted.
  • The government said a range of new offenses had been added to the bill that makes the senior managers at tech firms criminally liable for destroying evidence, failing to attend or providing false information in interviews with Ofcom, and for obstructing the watchdog when it enters company offices.
  • Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Twitter and TikTok have all been criticized for allowing harmful content to be shared on their platforms.
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Executives at companies like Meta, Google, Twitter and TikTok could face jail time sooner than anticipated if they fail to cooperate with the U.K. internet regulator, Ofcom.

The U.K. government announced Wednesday that executives may face prosecution or jail time within two months of the new Online Safety Bill becoming law, instead of two years as it was previously drafted.

The Online Safety Bill will be presented to lawmakers in Parliament on Thursday and could become law later this year.

It aims to make it mandatory for social media services, search engines and other platforms that allow people to share their own content to protect children, tackle illegal activity and uphold their stated terms and conditions. 

The government said Wednesday that a range of new offenses had been added to the bill that makes the senior managers at tech firms criminally liable for destroying evidence, failing to attend or providing false information in interviews with Ofcom, and for obstructing the watchdog when it enters company offices.

Ben Packer, a partner at Linklaters law firm, said the devil will be in the detail.

"To be workable, the final law will surely need to limit these offences to only cover information the individual could reasonably be expected to provide and to contain defenses, for instance if the senior manager honestly believed that what they provided to Ofcom was not false," he said in a statement shared with CNBC.

"A major challenge facing Ofcom will be how to enforce these powers, given that many of the platforms in the scope of the regime will not have a physical presence or individual members of staff based in the UK," Packer added.

Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Twitter and TikTok have all been criticized for allowing harmful content to be shared on their platforms. They say they're doing their best to remove it, but many lawmakers aren't satisfied.

"Tech firms haven't been held to account when harm, abuse and criminal behavior have run riot on their platforms," U.K. Digital Minister Nadine Dorries said in a statement. "Instead they have been left to mark their own homework."

Dorries said the internet needs protections in place that aren't dissimilar to a seat belt in a car.

"Given all the risks online, it's only sensible we ensure similar basic protections for the digital age," Dorries said. "If we fail to act, we risk sacrificing the wellbeing and innocence of countless generations of children to the power of unchecked algorithms."

In addition to potentially prosecuting tech execs, Ofcom will also have the power to fine companies up to 10% of their annual global turnover if they fail to comply with the rules. To put that into context, Meta could be fined up to $10 billion based on its 2021 revenue figures.

New recommendations included

The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport agreed to adopt 66 recommendations to the Online Safety Bill that were put forward by a joint committee last year. Recommendations included making online platforms responsible for activities including the promotion of self-harm online, extreme pornography and cyber flashing.

Damian Collins, chair of the joint committee on the draft Online Safety Bill, believes that the internet is something of a "Wild West" and hailed the adoption of the recommendations as a "huge moment" for the safety of internet users around the world.

"The joint committee on the Online Safety Bill set out a clear list of recommendations back in December, on how to make the bill stronger, whilst also protecting freedom of speech and the freedom of the press," Collins said in a statement.

"I'm very glad to see that the Government has adopted so many of our recommendations, ensuring we really will make the U.K. the safest place to be online in the world. The era of self-regulation for Big Tech has finally come to an end."

The bill must now go through a formal process that every bill must go through before it becomes an act. That includes giving U.K. lawmakers the chance to debate aspects within the legislation.

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