Social media companies could face criminal sanctions under plans being considered by the Culture Secretary.
Jeremy Wright said he would look at “all possible options for penalties” in the Government’s forthcoming White Paper on online harms, as pressure mounted on internet companies to take action to safeguard vulnerable people.
Mr Wright, who expects to meet Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg during a visit to the United States this week, said there was “no doubt” internet companies cannot be relied upon to take action themselves.
He told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show: “I think what’s important is that we have a system in place that sets out clearly what the responsibilities of online companies are, sets out how we expect them to meet those responsibilities and sets out what will happen if they fail to do so, and the White Paper will do that.”
Asked if that included criminal sanctions, he said: “We will consider all possible options for penalties and it’s important I think that those companies that we will be talking to and those companies from whom we’ll expect a positive response to this understand that there are meaningful sanctions available to us if they don’t do what they should.
“That’s what I think we owe the families of those teenagers.”
Mr Wright said the Government would be judged on how well the proposals succeed in making the internet a safer place.
“That’s what people expect of us,” he added.
His comments follow intense pressure on social networks to take action in safeguarding vulnerable people, highlighted by the case of Molly Russell, who took her life aged 14.
Her family found material relating to depression and suicide when they looked at her Instagram account after her death.
A White Paper on online harms will be published by the Government by the end of winter setting out expectations for social media companies, followed by a consultation over the summer that will set out new laws that could enforce the removal of harmful content.
Andy Burrows, NSPCC associate head of child safety online, said: “We are very encouraged by the Culture Secretary’s warning that social media firms could face criminal sanctions if they fail to protect children from online harm.
“It is vital that we have a regulator with teeth who can levy significant fines that ensure tech firms sit up and take notice.
“Earlier this week, we released a detailed blueprint calling for criminal sanctions to be imposed if sites fail in their responsibility to protect children.
“We hope that when the White Paper is published it reflects the consensus from both Jeremy Wright and the chairman of the Commons Culture committee, that social media companies should be held legally responsible for their actions.”