The UK culture secretary has said she is “not ruling out” changing the online safety bill to allow regulators to prosecute social media bosses who are found not to have protected children’s safety.
Michele Donelan told the BBC on Friday she was open to making changes that have been demanded by dozens of Conservative MPs, saying she would take a “sensible approach” to their ideas.
Her comments came a day after Downing Street said it was considering measures backed by 36 Conservative MPs that could lead to executives being jailed for up to two years for breaches in the law.
The MPs who have signed the amendment include the former home secretary Priti Patel and the former work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith.
Labour also confirmed on Friday it would back the amendment, increasing the pressure on the prime minister to back down.
Lucy Powell, the shadow culture secretary, said: “Labour has been calling for criminal liability for those who run these companies throughout the passage of the bill and we will join forces across the house to strengthen it in this way.”
The amendment would give Ofcom, the communications watchdog, the power to prosecute executives at social media companies that are found to have breached the law. If ministers include it in the bill, it will mark the third time the prime minister, Rishi Sunak, has bowed to the demands of his backbenchers, after U-turns on planning and onshore windfarms.
A Downing Street spokesperson said on Thursday: “Our aim is to hold to account social media platforms for harmful content, while also ensuring the UK remains a great place to invest and grow a tech business. We are confident we can achieve both of these things. We will carefully consider all the proposed amendments to the online safety bill and set out the position when report stage continues.”
One concession under consideration by ministers, reported by the Daily Telegraph, would be to make named senior personnel at tech firms responsible for aspects of online safety, such as providing reports on child sexual exploitation material to the National Crime Agency or being liable for “repeated and systemic” breaches of the act.
The bill is aimed at cracking down on a range of online content that ministers believe is causing serious harm to users and was informed in part by the testimony of Frances Haugen, a former Facebook employee who accused the company of repeatedly putting profits ahead of user safety.
The bill will force companies to remove any content promoting self-harm, depicting sexual violence or facilitating suicide. It will also require companies to impose and enforce strict age limits and to publish assessments of the risks their platforms pose to young people.
As it is written, the bill gives Ofcom the power to levy fines on companies of up to 10% of their global turnover for breaches in the law. Ofcom will be able to prosecute executives only if they fail to cooperate with an investigation. This has upset many Conservative MPs, however, who believe the regulator should be given tougher powers.
The amendment, which has been signed by 37 MPs overall, would allow Ofcom to prosecute individual executives if they were proven to have connived with or consented to breaking the elements of the bill designed to protect children’s safety. Judges would be allowed to impose prison sentences of up to two years.
The NSPCC has backed the amendment, demanding that “the buck stops with senior management for the safety of our children”.
The father of Molly Russell, the 14-year-old who took her own life in 2017 after seeing harmful content related to suicide and self-harm on social media, gave his backing to the amendment.
Ian Russell said: “At Molly’s inquest the world saw the scale of the incredibly distressing content she was exposed to as a vulnerable girl suffering from mental ill-health. Still no one has taken any personal responsibility for how social media contributed to her death.
“Including senior manager liability in the online safety bill is an opportunity to stop this from happening again and focus tech bosses’s minds to ensure their platforms are safe online spaces for children to be.
“I urge the culture secretary and the prime minister to listen to campaigners and a growing number of their own MPs and accept this crucial amendment to the proposed legislation.”
Other changes to the bill, which has its report and third reading stage in the House of Commons next week, include altering earlier plans to tackle content seen by adults that is harmful but falls below the threshold of criminality, such as cyberbullying and sexist and racist material.
Tech companies will be required to state clearly in their terms and conditions how they will moderate such content. Users will also be given the option of asking to have such content screened out when they are on social media platforms.