UK warns Facebook to focus on safety as minister eyes faster criminal sanctions for tech CEOs

Nadine Dorries, the UK’s newly appointed secretary of state for digital, has indicated that she wants to be tougher on social media platforms than her predecessor, telling a parliamentary committee that she wants to speed up the application of criminal sanctions for violations of upcoming UK online safety legislation. 

The draft Online Safety bill included a provision to hold identifiable persons legally liable for failing to stop illegal or harmful information from spreading on their platforms, but it was postponed for two years.

Dorries told the joint committee considering the bill earlier today that she wants to speed up that timeline, perhaps shortening the deferral of criminal responsibility powers to as little as three to six months after the measure is signed into law. 

The law was first released in draft form in May, and Prime Minister Boris Johnson said last month that it will be submitted to parliament before Christmas — though sources suggest the deadline may be pushed again. Nonetheless, given Johnson’s overwhelming Commons majority, it is certain that the plan will become law in 2022. If Dorries had her way, criminal responsibility for tech CEOs may introduce in the UK as early as next year.

Dorries said that internet companies already know what modifications they need to do to remove unlawful content (such as terrorism) and legal but harmful content (such as pro-anorexia or self-harm content) off their platforms, but are delaying for financial reasons. 

As a result, the implication is that a looming prospect of criminal punishment is required to focus the attention of digital behemoths. “Take attention now, platforms,” she cautioned. “It won’t be two years; we’re looking at cutting it down to a much shorter period of time.”

“As Secretary of State, that’s one of the areas where I want to take this law further,” she continued. “I believe it is absurd that platforms have been allowed two years to prepare for potentially criminal proceedings. They have figured out what they are doing now. They truly have the capacity to correct what is now incorrect. They are now capable of enforcing their own terms and conditions. They might be able to get rid of hazardous algorithms tomorrow.”

Frances Haugen, a Facebook whistleblower who came out last month as the source of a trove of stolen internal papers and accused the internet giant of prioritizing business over safety, has called for modifications to Facebook’s algorithm to minimize virality and prevent the spread of misinformation. 

The idea of damaging algorithms and a systematic lack of attention to safety appears to have struck a chord with UK MPs, who have spent years writing laws aimed at reinforcing a duty of care in platforms’ content policies.

Dorries suggested that Facebook’s recent rebranding to “Meta” — and its self-proclaimed pivot toward directly massive resource into building “the metaverse” — should instead be used to improve online safety and protect children from Internet content horrors, citing the tech giant’s recent rebranding to “Meta.”