Labour’s deputy leader has cautiously welcomed apparent plans to make tech companies and social networks more accountable for harmful content online.
Tom Watson said plans leaked from a long-awaited white paper on tackling online harm were “progress” but said there were some gaps in the response.
The government has come to the conclusion that self-regulation in the market no longer works and so it will work to introduce new legally-binding measures to make tech companies responsible for blocking or removing harmful content on their platforms.
According to plans leaked to The Guardian, the white paper could make company bosses personally liable for harmful content on their platforms.
Ministers are said to be prepared to push for a “duty of care” to be policed by an independent regulator like Ofcom.
The regulator could have powers to impose substantial fines.
Speaking to Sky News, Mr Watson said: “If these leaks are true, we are pleased the government has adopted our recommendation there is a new regulator.
“We have said the duty of care should be incumbent on the directors – it’s progress.
“But there are some gaps, this doesn’t address market failures.
“Facebook and Google are too rich, too aloof, too unaccountable, to the point where Mark Zuckerberg thinks he can refuse to speak to the UK parliament.”
He said that most MPs were united when it came to online issues, including the view that social media companies are “irresponsible”.
Mr Watson added: “Facebook live-streamed a massacre.
“If Sky or the BBC did that, there’d be uproar.
“But social networks hire banks, lawyers and lobbyists to avoid being held to account.”
According to the reports, Ofcom would initially take on the regulatory role, but a new body could then be set up.
The need for change has come in part from the death of Molly Russell, the teenager who was found to have viewed content linked to self-harm and suicide on Instagram before she took her own life in 2017.
Her father, Ian Russell, said: “Up until now they [social networks] have chosen their own course.
“Governments have allowed social media platforms to be self-regulated, but remember this really is a matter of life and death and it’s getting worse.”
The head of online child safety at the NSPCC, Andy Burrows, also backed the plans, saying: “Unless we have regulation that is capable of protecting children in the way we know is necessary, then we will see further tragedies with children coming to harm.”
However, freedom of expression organisation Article 19 warned against the government creating a situation where legitimate expression could be censored.
In Ireland this week, Facebook boss Mr Zuckerberg said he would work with governments to establish new policies in a bid to regulate social media.
A government spokesman told The Guardian all options had been considered in assessing how to regulate the sector.
The white paper is due to be released on 8 April.
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