Tech giants will 'run rings' round Government if duty of care only enforces companies' rules, peers warn Prime Minister

Mike Wright
·3 min read
A group of senior peers have written to the Prime Minister warning the new online regulator must have 'real powers' - PA
A group of senior peers have written to the Prime Minister warning the new online regulator must have 'real powers' - PA
Banner: Duty of Care
Banner: Duty of Care

The tech giants will 'run rings around the Government' if duty of care laws simply adopt the companies' own rules, a group of senior peers have warned the Prime Minister.

The cross-party House of Lords group, which includes the Bishop of Oxford Steven Croft and former children’s presenter Baroness Floella Benjamin, said the new online regulator had to be given ‘real powers’ to police social media algorithms that spread dangerous content.

The warning comes as Prime Minister Boris Johnson is currently considering proposals drawn up by the Home Secretary Priti Patel and culture secretary Oliver Dowden for imposing a statutory duty of care on tech companies to better protect their users.

Under the proposals, which The Telegraph has campaigned for since 2018, a new online regulator - likely to be Ofcom - could levy huge fines and potentially prosecute executives of tech firms that breached the duty.

Ministers have previously said they want the regulations to prevent a repeat of the case of Molly Russell, the 14-year-old schoolgirl who took her life after viewing self-harm and suicide material on Instagram.

However, earlier this month, Mr Dowden told MPs he considers the best way to tackle legal but harmful content, such as self-harm posts, is to ensure social media companies enforce their own community rules and standards.

The cabinet minister said under the proposed regime tech companies would not be allowed to produce 'fig leaf' terms and conditions and that the regulator would have scope to force changes in certain circumstances defined by Parliament.

In a letter to Mr Johnson, seen by The Telegraph, the peers described such a regime as being ‘way off the mark’ and highlighted the rampant spread of Covid misinformation during the pandemic as an example of how ineffective the platforms’ own rules were.

The peers said: “If this is all there is, it will not be enough. Indeed, this is a recipe to let the big platforms continue to run rings around the government, regulators and the British public while claiming compliance with the law.”

The group, which also includes children’s rights campaigner Baroness Kidron, former director Lord Puttnam and Conservative peer Baroness McGregor-Smith, went on to warn that social media sites had to be ‘held to account’ for the ways their algorithms, which decide what users see in their feeds, promoted harmful content.

The letter added: “The regulator needs real powers to hold platforms to account, for example being able to inspect platforms’ algorithms to understand how they facilitate the spread of misinformation and disinformation.”

Following the letter, a spokesman for the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport said: "Under our proposals online platforms will not be left to mark their own homework. They will have an overarching legal duty of care to protect UK users of their services and the regulator will have tough powers to enforce this."