In the past 20 years, we’ve gradually welcomed the internet into almost every part of our lives. We use it at home, in the office and when we’re out and about.
The vast majority of the time, that technology is a huge force for good. It allows us to connect with friends and family all over the world, and store a lifetime of personal memories in our pocket.
We use it to stream our favourite playlists, or as an instant encyclopedia for every subject under the sun.
However, now that we have opened our lives to the internet, we need to protect users from the darker side of the web: from illegal content and abuse, and damaging disinformation.
Up until now, tech companies have been ‘marking their own homework’ – with predictable results. They’ve set terms and conditions, but too often, those safeguards are not enforced.
Unfortunately, we still see far too many tragic cases of online child grooming and abuse, of young people being driven to hurt themselves because of something they’ve seen online.
Too many people – not just those in public life – continue to be bombarded by racism, misogyny and trolling on a regular basis. Trust in tech is falling. That’s bad for society and it’s bad for the tech companies. I commend The Telegraph for shining a light on these issues and being an early proponent of the need for new laws.
So, we are stepping in, and announcing ground-breaking legislation to hold tech platforms to their promises. This will be a new age of accountability. Under our Online Harms proposals, companies will face a binding ‘duty of care’ to their users.
They will be legally obliged to protect those users from illegal content such as child sexual abuse and terrorism.
I can confirm we have asked the Law Commission to consider how the criminal law might address the encouragement, or assistance, of self harm.
And those platforms will also have to protect users from legal content that might cause children and other vulnerable people harm, such as anti-vaccination disinformation or cyber-bullying.
If those firms fail in that duty of care – if they fail to protect children from inappropriate material, for example – they will face steep fines of up to £18 million, or 10 per cent of their annual global turnover.
For the most serious cases, we’re also reserving the right for Parliament to introduce criminal sanctions for senior managers. We hope not to use those powers – we would much rather tech tackles this head on, and engineers out the harm before it becomes a problem. But together, those measures will make this the toughest and most comprehensive regime in the world.
What does all of that mean in the real world? It means a 13-year-old will no longer be able to access pornographic images on Twitter. YouTube will be banned from recommending videos promoting terrorist ideologies.
Criminal anti-semitic posts will need to be removed without delay, while platforms will have to stop the intolerable level of abuse that many women face in almost every single online setting. And, of course, this legislation will make sure the internet is not a safe space for horrors such as child sexual abuse or terrorism.
At the heart of these plans is the protection of children – and that’s something I’m acutely conscious of both in the office and at home. I see first-hand the role WhatsApp and other social media and messaging apps are playing in our children’s lives, and I know how powerless parents can feel when their child is being bullied online.
It can be incredibly frustrating when it looks like tech companies aren’t effectively enforcing clear red lines, such as age limits. I want to be able to look parents in the eye and tell them this Government is doing everything we can to keep their children safe. Our Online Harms legislation will take a huge step towards doing that.
I won’t allow this to become a charter to suppress the robust free debate that gives our democracy real strength and resilience. Nor will I allow it to become a charter to impose a certain world view and suppress others. So we’re introducing strong protections for free speech and freedom of expression.
And, to make sure we do not impose unnecessary burdens on smaller, low-risk businesses, we have included exemptions that mean only three per cent of UK businesses fall within scope of this regulation. In doing so, we’re ensuring we protect people without compromising our freedoms.
Taken together, these measures mark a significant step in the continual evolution of our approach to our life online – and it’s fitting that this country should be the one to take it.
The World Wide Web was invented by a Brit. Now the UK is setting a safety standard for the rest of the world to follow.