(Bloomberg) -- The U.K. has no current plans to legislate to prosecute or fine social media companies such as Facebook Inc., Twitter Inc. and Alphabet Inc. if they fail to remove illegal content, a person familiar with the matter said, after an ethics panel asked Prime Minister Theresa May to intervene.
Paul Bew, chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, called on the government to shift liability to the companies, so they become publishers, not merely platforms for content. Such a move risks destroying the companies’ business models, although the government refuses to rule out future changes to the law if social media networks don’t clean up their platforms, said the person, who asked not to be named discussing policy plans.
Bew’s recommendation, published Wednesday, is the latest in a growing debate about how to tackle online abuse. The independent ethics watchdog also called for a new offense to be created of intimidating candidates for parliamentary office and their staff after hearing that lawmakers, especially women, have received death, rape and racially-aggravated threats online.
“The increasing scale and intensity of this issue demands a serious response,” said Bew, a non-affiliated lawmaker in the upper House of Lords and professor of politics at Queen’s University, Belfast. “The time has come for the government to legislate to shift the liability for illegal content online towards social media companies.”
May’s government has become increasingly outspoken against the big technology companies. Home Secretary Amber Rudd has repeatedly called for intelligence agencies to be able to examine encrypted conversations to prevent acts of terrorism. On Dec. 5, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt tweeted at Facebook to ”stay away from my kids” after the company released the Messenger Kids app.
Antony Walker, the deputy chief executive officer or TechUK, an industry trade association, said new laws were not the answer. "Blanket legislative solutions may appear attractive but are unlikely to be effective," he said in a statement.
In June 2017, Germany became the first European Union member state to pass a law creating time-specific take-down provisions for social media platforms. Bew’s panel, which is made up of lawmakers and non-political appointees, said Britain’s exit from the bloc, due in March 2019, provides an opportunity for independent action to tackle the issue.
The social media companies defended their record on fighting abusive posts. Twitter was also now blocking or removing ten times the number accounts each day as it was a year ago, Nick Pickles, Twitter’s head of U.K. public policy, said in an emailed response.
Facebook said it was "making significant investments in hiring more people who understand issues around candidate safety."
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