Government not ruling out prosecuting social media company directors – minister

The Government is not ruling out prosecuting directors of social media companies whose platforms ignore planned online harms regulations, a minister said.

Digital minister Matt Warman said he looks forward to “all possible options” and that “nothing is off the table” when it comes to sanctions.

His comments followed a call by the SNP’s media spokesman John Nicolson to give Ofcom “powers to make directors of social media companies personally liable, including facing prosecution”.

The Government did not set out potential enforcement powers in its first response to the online harms white paper on Wednesday.

Responding to Mr Nicolson’s suggestion, Mr Warman said: “He talks about director liability, it is an area where in financial services regulation, for instance, we know that it has been effective.

“I look forward to looking at all possible options when it comes to sanctions, I want them to be as effective as they possibly can and nothing is off the table. Again, whatever he might have read.”

He added that “not a single word of the response” issued on Wednesday was “watered down at the request of tech companies”.

Tory Julian Knight, the new chairman of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, called for a tech levy to fund the regulator.

“Does the minister agree with me that there also needs to be a tech levy set at 2% of UK revenues in order to properly fund this super regulator?” he asked.

He added that the committee should have “a veto over the appointment or dismissal over the head of the regulator in exactly the same way as the Treasury Select Committee has over the head of the Office for Budget Responsibility”.

Mr Warman said: “The chair of the select committee is absolutely right that regulation without teeth is not a valuable form of regulation.”

He added: “I agree with him that a levy has been much discussed. He mentions one figure, we will obviously have to discuss with Ofcom what they consider to be the level of resources that they need – and I don’t use that as a way to weasel out of what he suggests by any means – it is a very interesting suggestion.”

Numerous Labour MPs raised concerns about the Government’s initial response.

Shadow digital minister Chi Onwurah said: “This response on online harms is overdue, weak and ultimately ineffective.”

Labour’s Kevin Brennan said there is a “suspicion” that “things like penalties for prosecutions for directors and things like the banning of companies that egregiously breach the new approach are going to be dropped when the final proposals come out”.

Mr Warman replied that Mr Brennan “could not be more wrong”.

Shadow culture secretary Tracy Brabin asked: “How many more days will anxious parents have to wait, and to be quite frank, who is going to take responsibility for children harmed while this Government dithers?”

Mr Warman replied: “She is right that there is never an excuse for delaying in this kind of area, but as the NSPCC said to me yesterday, bad regulation is worse than no regulation.

“We will take our time to get this right but we will not delay for a second longer, that is why we will be legislating in this session.”