- By Paul Seddon and Oscar Bentley
- BBC news
Rishi Sunak is facing a major rebellion against government plans to prevent harmful material on the internet.
Thirty-six Conservative MPs are backing a plan to jail social media bosses if they fail to protect children from harmful content online.
Their amendment to the online safety law is expected to be voted on next week.
The idea was mooted under Boris Johnson but ultimately rejected in favor of higher fines for companies.
When asked about the proposal, Culture Secretary Michelle Donelan said she “doesn’t rule out” accepting any of the amendments.
Speaking on the BBC’s Newscast podcast, he said he was “strongly in favor of strengthening child protection” and would take “a sensible approach” in considering MPs’ ideas.
The rebellion follows other significant backlash in recent weeks over housing targets for municipalities and restrictions on onshore wind farms.
On both of these issues, the prime minister backed down and offered concessions to avoid defeat in the House of Commons.
According to the rebels’ proposals, top executives of tech companies could face up to two years in prison if they violate new duties to protect children online. The provision would not apply to search engines.
These duties include taking “proportionate steps” to prevent children from viewing harmful material, including through measures such as age verification, content removal, and parental controls.
Currently the bill would only make managers criminally liable for failing to provide information to media regulator Ofcom, which is expected to gain sweeping powers to control the internet under the new law.
Making managers liable for failure to meet broader security obligations in the bill was rejected after consultation before the bill was introduced, which concluded it could make the UK’s tech sector less attractive.
Companies that fail to fulfill their legal duties, including protecting children, could be fined up to 10% of global revenue.
However, supporters of the amendment, including child protection charities, argue that only personal accountability for company bosses will ensure the effectiveness of child safety arrangements.
Conservative rebels point to the construction and financial services sectors, which have similar personal responsibilities to corporate executives.
A leading Tory rebel, Miriam Cates, told the BBC the group met with Ms Donelan earlier this week, and ministers acknowledge the “strength of feeling” on the issue.
He added that they were open to government concessions, but any proposed changes to the law would have to retain personal accountability for executives.
‘I think this is the key driver of change,’ he told the BBC’s World Tonight programme, adding: ‘In the construction sector we have seen a massive drop in construction accidents and fatalities since liability was introduced. of executives”.
Labor has confirmed to the BBC that it supports the wayward Tory amendment. It means that the government, which has a working majority of 68 votes, is at serious risk of defeat.
The party tabled similar amendments as the bill passed through Parliament. Labour’s shadow culture secretary Lucy Powell has previously said a lack of criminal accountability for social media bosses would leave Ofcom “toothless”.
Other Conservatives supporting the amendment include former Tory leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith and other former ministers including former Home Secretary Priti Patel.
However, the Open Rights Group has expressed concern about the idea. Policy officer Dr Monica Horten said: “This amendment is not at all clear on what grounds the directors of technology companies could be indicted.
“Fear of a prison sentence could lead to children being restricted from all kinds of content they have a legal right to see, either because they would be wiped out or because they would be denied access.”
The online safety bill was introduced in March under Johnson and has been repeatedly amended as it passed through Parliament.
Its progress was further delayed last month when the government decided to make further changes to the bill.
He is due to return to the Commons next Tuesday, after which he will begin what is likely to be a long journey through the House of Lords.
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