Social media bosses face up to two years in prison if they fail to hand over data on how they use algorithms to decide what users see, under legislation introduced by the UK government.
Culture secretary Nadine Dorries said the Online Safety Bill would be “world-leading” after adding new measures aimed at creating strict criminal liability for executives at Silicon Valley’s tech giants.
A raft of new offences have been added to the bill to make company managers liable for destroying evidence requested by Ofcom, providing false information or obstructing Britain’s media regulator.
Criminal liability for managers at the online giants – which could lead to up to two years in imprisonment or a fine – will also be introduced within two months of the bill coming into effect, more quickly than expected.
Ms Dorries said the big social media giants like Facebook and Twitter “haven’t been held to account when harm, abuse and criminal behaviour have run riot on their platforms”.
The culture secretary said the algorithms which help decide what sort of content users gets shown based on their online habits – which amplifies harmful content, campaigners say – will come under much closer scrutiny through the new offences.
“It’s the algorithms that cause the harm, so this bill will compel those platforms to expose those algorithms to our regulator so they can pick up where the harm is happening and hold those platforms to account,” Ms Dorries told ITV on Wednesday.
However, campaign groups have warned that the bill does not go far enough to tackle tech platforms’ business models and algorithms which “prioritise and amplify harmful content”.
Alaphia Zoyab, internet reform group Reset’s advocacy director, said the bill “doesn’t do enough to rein in the power of unaccountable Silicon Valley tycoons, whose platforms amplify harmful lies and hate because they drive the most clicks and cash”.
Ellen Judson, senior researcher at Demos, said the government’s bill “must do more to hold big tech accountable for the way in which their operations and design of their services are putting people at risk”.
The overall aim of the bill is to require online platforms to conform to a duty of care and remove content that is illegal or considered harmful – with fines of up to 10 per cent of their annual global turnover among the potential penalties.
The bill has been strengthened in recent months, with the addition of several new criminal offences to force social media firms to act on illegal content more quickly.
Ms Dorries confirmed last month that offences such as revenge porn, hate crime, fraud, the sale of illegal drugs or weapons, the promotion or facilitation of suicide, people-smuggling and sexual exploitation have been added to the list of priority offences.
Cyberflashing will become a criminal offence, punishable by up to two years in jail. And there will be new measures to crack down on anonymous trolls to give people more control over who can contact them and what they see online.
Ms Dorries is under pressure to explain exactly how the bill will uphold freedom of speech, despite the promise that journalists will be given protections from censorship.
There are concerns that encouraging Ofcom and the tech firms to establish a framework for “legal but harmful” content which must be addressed will give social media giants too much leeway in censoring views.
But the government has promised that parliament will get to approve what types of “legal but harmful” content platforms must attempt to do more to tackle.
Ruth Smeeth, chief executive of the Index on Censorship group, said the free speech protections in the bill “are not worth the paper they are written on”.
She said: “The government has admitted to what we’ve been arguing for years. They are doing nothing about the fact that Silicon Valley has a stranglehold on our freedom of speech. In fact, their Online Safety Bill will give it even more muscle to censor our legal content.”
The Open Rights Group – worried about the independence of the regulator when it comes to deciding what constitutes harmful material – said it was “Orwellian” and amounted to “state sanctioned censorship of legal content”.
Attempting to reassure cynical Tory MPs and campaigners, Ms Dorries claimed the bill would help stop Silicon Valley chiefs being the “supreme arbiters” of freedom of speech online.
“We would never pursue legislation that threatens freedom of expression … nor can we maintain the current status quo, where a handful of west coast execs are the supreme arbiters of online speech,” the cabinet minister wrote on ConservativeHome.
Meanwhile, Labour said it supported the principles of the bill – but argued that long delays to the legislation had allowed disinformation by Vladimir Putin’s government and others to go unchecked for years.
Lucy Powell MP, shadow culture secretary, said: “Delay to the Online Safety Bill has allowed the Russian regime’s disinformation to spread like wildfire. Other groups have watched and learned their tactics … delay up to this point has come with significant cost.”