Priti Patel pledges ‘tough’ enforcement tools for social media watchdog

Home Secretary Priti Patel has pledged Ofcom will have the tools to ensure social media companies uphold the Government’s new duty of care statutes.

In a column for The Daily Telegraph, Ms Patel said she would soon be announcing the “tough” enforcement tools at the disposal of Ofcom, who will be the new online harms regulator.

“With nearly 80 per cent of young people saying they have experienced a harm while browsing online, regulating this space is not just logical but necessary,” Ms Patel said.

“Ofcom will have teeth when it comes to holding tech companies to account.”

Ms Patel said the regulator’s guidelines would aim to strike a balance between free speech and user protection.

“(Freedom of expression) is the cornerstone of our society, and we have set out carefully in our interim consultation response how the regulation will not encroach on this fundamental right,” she wrote.

“We continue to work with tech companies to address concerns over end-to-end encryption, and are investing in law enforcement and new capabilities to protect children. Everyone has the right to stay safe online, and to live without fear of abuse or exploitation.

“If tech companies abdicate this responsibility, then it is up to the Government to protect our citizens from harm.”

Digital minister Matt Warman indicated on Wednesday that the scope of the watchdog’s powers could include heavy fines for companies and the naming and shaming of individual executives.

However he played down the prospect of criminal sanctions, saying that would be “an extreme option”.

General Election 2017 declaration
Digital minister Matt Warman said punishments to tech companies would need to be suitable to the crime (Joe Giddens/PA)

While the decision to appoint a social media regulator has been widely praised by children’s and victims charities, privacy campaigners warned the move was a threat to free speech.

“Private companies would be deciding what is legal or illegal, and will always remove more than they need, rather than less,” executive director of the Open Rights Group Jim Killock said.

“Instead, the Government should seek to ensure that companies have sufficient independent scrutiny of their actions. This is known as co-regulation, and could be supervised by Ofcom.”

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.

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

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