Labour would establish a new standalone internet regulator with the power to fine tech companies that fail in their duty of care to children, as part of proposals to be announced on Wednesday by the shadow culture secretary, Tom Watson.
If it wins the next election, the party wants penalties for companies that fail to safeguard children to be on a similar scale to those followingdata breaches. Depending on their revenue, firms can be fined many billions of pounds.
“If companies breach health and safety law in this country they are not only fined but forced to pay a victim surcharge to compensate those affected,” Watson is expected to say. “For the duty of care to be effective we need penalties that seriously affect companies’ bottom lines.”
Labour’s proposals come as the government prepares to publish its own plans for the future of internet regulation later this month, which could include a new code of conduct for internet regulators.
The culture secretary, Jeremy Wright, on Tuesday declared that “the era of self-regulation of the internet is coming to an end”. His comments come following criticism of social media companies over the death of the British teenager Molly Russell. Her parents believe she killed herself after she was exposed to graphic images of self-harm and suicide on Instagram and Pinterest.
Jackie Doyle-Price, minister for mental health and suicide prevention, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Tuesday: “[Social media executives] are currently operating as if they are completely not responsible for the content that sits on their platforms. That isn’t an excuse we are going to have any more.”
Asked whether executives of US social media platforms that broke the law would be liable for arrest in Britain, she said: “Nothing is off the table … we could use fines, we could make social media companies much more responsible and apply the full force of the law to them if we feel they are being negligent in their duty of care to their users.”
Watson also said Labour would look at breaking up major tech companies with large market share, although it is unclear how a British government could wield such power given the dominant online companies are headquartered in the US.
Among other measures, Watson will also propose a digital bill of rights that would give individuals control over their own data. This could make it easier for users to switch to new social networks, in addition to requiring tech companies to ensure that groups paying to target online political adverts at British voters are based in the UK.
Watson also called for an overhaul of takeover rules to take into account the risk of giant individual companies building up excessive amounts of personal data. “Today, power is consolidated by large companies merging and acquiring smaller competitors. So future competition reviews should consider whether companies are acquiring data and patents that enable monopolisation.”
The proposals build on Jeremy Corbyn’s media proposals announced last year, which suggested a publicly backed social media platform, a tax on large technology companies to subsidise the BBC, and giving charitable status to some struggling news organisations.
In recent years politicians around the world have conducted public investigations into large tech firms and their impact on society, many of them launched in the aftermath of the Brexit referendum and the 2016 US presidential election amid concerns about online disinformation.
Many of these investigations are now reporting their conclusions, and governments are preparing legislation based on their recommendations. This leaves the likes of Facebook and Google engaging in a major behind-the-scenes lobbying campaign to ensure any proposed regulatory system works in their favour.
The link between social media and teenage suicide has been questioned, although this week a YouGov poll from the Prince’s Trust suggested children are feeling more anxious as a result of pressure to succeed instilled through social media use.
Recent advice from the the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health has recommended that hard-and-fast limits on social media usage are avoided, instead recommending that parents focus on ensuring their children get enough sleep, exercise and family interaction.
In a separate development, Facebook’s new lobbying chief, Sir Nick Clegg, has been asked to appear in front of MPs on the joint committee on human rights to give evidence on the increasing volume of abuse and harassment towards elected officials. The committee chair, Harriet Harman, said intimidation and abuse on social media was “affecting the way in which MPs feel able to go about their business.”