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UK regulator gains more powers to police social media companies

By Hugh Wilson

Government considering new ‘duty of care’ legislation for social media giants

Facebook, Twitter and Instagram could be forced to do more to protect users from harmful content under UK government plans to be unveiled on Wednesday.

Nicky Morgan, culture secretary in Boris Johnson’s ruling Conservative government, will outline draft legislation which is likely to include an expanded role for broadcast watchdog Ofcom in policing the social media giants.

As part of the plan, social media companies would be forced to comply with a new “duty of care”, handing them a legal responsibility for protecting users from illegal or harmful material. That could include content containing violence, terrorism, cyber-bullying, suicide and child abuse.

It’s not yet clear what sanctions Ofcom would be able to employ against companies that breach the duty of care, but a government white paper published last year talked of issuing fines, blocking sites and holding senior executives criminally responsible for illegal content.

The plans are likely to face heavy criticism from social media firms, who up until now have largely been self-regulating. Last year’s white paper was described as advocating a North Korean-style censorship regime by some critics, who claimed that regulators would effectively be deciding which websites UK users could visit.

But the government looks determined to press ahead with the plans after public trust in social media platforms was rocked by a series of tragic incidents. In one case, Molly Russell, 14, took her own life in 2017 after viewing material on suicide and self-harm on Instagram.

FURTHER READING: Facebook sued for anti-competitive conduct

FURTHER READING: Instagram will now ask new users for their birthdates

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