Jail time for UK tech bosses if they fail to keep children safe online
The UK’s Online Safety Bill evades defeat in its third reading in Parliament after Prime Minister Rishi Sunak surrenders to rebellious MPs and promises to add two-year prison sentences for tech firm managers who fail to keep children safe online, reports the BBC. Communications watchdog Ofcom is expected to regulate the legislation.
Almost 50 MPs from Sunak’s Tory party, with support from opposition MPs, had been calling for the prison terms, and threatened to reject the long-languishing Bill. Sunak said he will ensure similar – tighter – proposals are written in.
Lead Tory rebel Miriam Cates said that including personal criminal liability is the only way to create change and has been implemented in the financial services and construction sectors.
Criminal action would be launched if a tech company ignored repeated warnings from Ofcom to protect children.
The Bill comes under the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, whose Secretary of State Michelle Donelan said the criminal element is based on a recently-passed law in Ireland. Donelan said in a statement that while the amendment would not affect “those who have acted in good faith to comply in a proportionate way, it gives the Act additional teeth to deliver change and ensure that people are held to account if they fail to properly protect children.”
The Bill has now passed through the House of Commons and will begin the next stage of its never-ending journey, in the House of Lords. Albeit with fresh amendments before it even passes down the corridor.
Time for age verification tech
The possibility of criminal proceedings against a named representative means any tech or software introduced by online businesses to keep children out or safe will need to be robust.
“I find it hard to envisage criminal proceedings relating to age assurance if online services are making use of good-quality verification and estimation technology, independently tested and certified to the latest international standards,” Iain Corby, executive director of the Age Verification Providers Association (AVPA) tells Biometric Update.
“Regulators will want to encourage that behaviour, and jailing executives who do the right thing does not create an incentive for compliance so is unlikely to pass a public interest test for bringing a prosecution if that is the only issue. But this amendment will inevitably still concentrate the minds of business leaders on online safety and give them a stronger argument when justifying the required investments.”
Age estimation and verification companies are ready to receive investment. The tech is also ready, according to Julie Dawson, chief policy and regulatory officer at UK-based digital identity firm Yoti. “There are now low-cost, scalable, privacy-preserving age verification solutions which can protect children from serious harm, and create safe, age-appropriate experiences.
“Yoti’s technology for age assurance is independently audited, working at scale globally, and can help companies comply with the proposed regulations,” Dawson adds. Her firm’s age estimation technology is already in use around the world for age checks for young Instagram users in certain circumstances.
“Businesses should be required to implement effective age verification and play their part in creating a safer online environment. Until this happens, children continue to be at risk every day.”
No smooth sailing, especially across English Channel
The legislation now passes to the upper chamber, the House of Lords. It is not expected to have a smooth journey.
“There should be no further delays to the Online Safety Bill because these solutions are ready now,” comments Yoti’s Dawson. “Individuals can just share the fact that they are over a certain age, and nothing else. This data minimisation approach protects the privacy of individuals, gives businesses confidence that someone is over the correct age, and prevents children from stumbling across explicit, harmful content.”
The amendments to the Bill drift somewhat into the absurd. Online activity is deemed to reflect crimes in the physical world. Illegal immigration gets its own section in Donelan’s statement, including “aiding, abetting, counselling, conspiring etc those offences by posting videos of people crossing the channel which show that activity in a positive light could be an offence that is committed online and therefore falls within what is priority illegal content.”
Tech companies such as social media would have to remove “positive” migrant boat crossing videos.
Meanwhile, research is suggesting that the internet might not be so bad for children overall. A study on Instagram direct messages in the Netherlands finds children may glean a lot more joy than sadness in their online activity, reports Fast Company.
Even Wikipedia has criticized the Bill as a volunteer-run site, saying it would “limit freedom,” reports the BBC.