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Big Tech executives could face jail time under new UK online safety bill

Top executives at Big Tech firms like Google and Meta could face jail time if they don’t comply with a strict new online safety bill introduced in the UK parliament on Thursday. Backers of the bill say it will address a slate of online dangers, including fraud, harassment and the exposure of children to pornography. As part of the bill, UK’s Office of Communications, or Ofcom, would have the ability to conduct wide-ranging investigations into companies to help enforce the law. Ofcom will also have the power to audit algorithms used by sites like Instagram and YouTube to recommend content to users as part of an effort to “assess how they are shielding users from harm.” If tech companies provide Ofcom with false information, fail to attend interviews with the regulator, destroy evidence or block investigators from entering their offices, top executives from those companies can face criminal charges and jail time of up to two years, according to the UK’s government’s digital secretary Nadine Dorries. The sites can also face times of up to 10% of their annual turnover if they fail to remove harmful content. “Tech firms haven’t been held to account when harm, abuse and criminal behavior have run riot on their platforms,” Dorries said. “If we fail to act, we risk sacrificing the wellbeing and innocence of countless generations of children to the power of unchecked algorithms.” But tech companies and free speech advocates alike have raised concerns about the bill. The Open Rights Group, a London-based digital rights and civil liberties advocacy group, called the bill a “festival of inane, poorly thought out and dangerous ideas.” “Placing people in jail for failures to abide by regulatory duties to remove legal content ought to appear extreme and dangerous,” the group’s executive director Jim Killock wrote on Thursday. “Yet it is being touted as a central policy.” “Longer term, it will be fuel for the Putins and other authoritarians, who revel in the prospect of identifying everyone and deciding for themselves what is right and wrong, and will be very pleased that the UK government is taking essentially the same approach,” Killock said. In addition to punishing sites that fail to crack down on fraud and harassment, the bill will criminalize “cyberflashing” — sending obscene pictures to strangers without their consent — as well as require sites that feature pornography to verify that users are over 18 years old. Backers of the bill argue that it will crack down on harmful online content while also protecting free speech. Users who think their posts have been censored unfairly will have the right to appeal, while “news content” will be exempt from any restrictions. “The bill will strengthen people’s rights to express themselves freely online and ensure social media companies are not removing legal free speech,” digital secretary Dorries said. But Killock from the Open Rights Group took issue with the government regulators deciding what is and isn’t “news content.” “The state will now regulate who is allowed to be the media, at least in order to avoid online censorship,” Killock said. “It is also extremely hard to see how the distinction between the uncensorable press and the rest of us will be maintained in practice, without making press posts and online comments attached to them a haven for the worst kinds of social media comments and behavior,” he added.

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