Tech Leaders Who Don't Comply With U.K.'s New Internet Rules Face Prison

Leaders at tech companies around the world could face up to two years in prison in the United Kingdom if they do not comply with new online safety laws.

Draft legislation was announced in Parliament on Thursday that aims to crack down on social media and other online entities to ensure safety and privacy for users, particularly children. The laws were drafted to prevent uploading and spreading of harmful content such as racism, bullying, fraud and sexual abuse.

"If we fail to act, we risk sacrificing the wellbeing and innocence of countless generations of children to the power of unchecked algorithms," U.K. Digital Secretary Nadine Dorries said in a statement.

While the legislation has been criticized by Parliament members in the past, the new draft has received bipartisan support.

"I'm very glad to see that the government has adopted so many of our recommendations, ensuring we really will make the UK the safest place to be online in the world," said Tory Member of Parliament Damian Collins, who previously disapproved of other versions of the bill. "The era of self-regulation for Big Tech has finally come to an end,"

Collins called it "a huge moment for the safety of all internet users."

The bill has to be voted on by British lawmakers.

The legislation has been updated several times since its inception. Among the changes are hefty fines or blockages if networks fail to remove harmful content after being notified of its existence, as well as the labeling of sending unsolicited nudes as a criminal offense.

The fines could be up to 10 percent of the affected company's annual global income. Ofcom, the bill's regulator, has been granted legal grounds to request information from companies they suspect of not following the bill's rules.

If Ofcom is able to prove that the companies withheld information or have not responded properly to notifications of inappropriate or illegal content, the executives would be held criminally liable. This part of the law will be enforced two months after the law itself is enacted, meaning companies and websites will have time to crack down on their content before facing legal consequences.

"Tech firms haven't been held to account when harm, abuse and criminal behavior have run riot on their platforms," Dorries said.

Some U.K. residents have pushed back against the new version of the bill, including memes from the Open Rights Group. The organization claims that, despite good intentions, the regulations could result in a slippery slope that could end up violating free speech.

"There are now lots of new and unworkable ideas tacked on at the last minute, making it a monstrous melange of fit to fail duties that will make minority groups less safe online," said Jim Killock of the Open Rights Group.

Update 3/17/22, 11:56 a.m. ET: This story has been updated with additional information.

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TikTok is one of the many social media platforms that will have to comply with the U.K.'s stricter internet laws prohibiting harmful and unlawful content. Photo by Tolga Akmen/AFP via Getty Images