Tech executives whose platforms persistently fail to protect children from online harm will face criminal charges after ministers reached a deal with Conservative backbenchers.
Rishi Sunak was facing the prospect of defeat in a Commons vote on Tuesday after a rebel amendment to the online safety bill won opposition support. However, supporters have now withdrawn the amendment after the government agreed to change the legislation.
Under the proposed changes, senior managers at tech firms will be criminally liable for repeated breaches of their duty of care to children and could face up to two years in jail. The government is expected to target bosses who ignore enforcement notices from Ofcom, the communications regulator, in relation to breaches of their child safety duties, which include protecting children from harmful content such as material promoting self-harm and eating disorders.
However, it will not criminalise executives who have “acted in good faith to comply in a proportionate way” with their duties.
The rebellion had been led by Miriam Cates and Sir Bill Cash, with the support of senior figures including Iain Duncan Smith and Priti Patel. The online safety bill returns to the Commons on Tuesday but the changes, which were first reported by the Daily Telegraph, will be laid down when the legislation moves to the House of Lords.
A government source said the culture secretary, Michelle Donelan, was “pleased that colleagues will no longer be pushing their amendments to a vote following constructive conversation and work”.
The NSPCC, the child protection charity, said senior management liability would help create culture change within tech firms.
“By committing to senior manager liability the culture secretary has sent a strong and welcome signal that she will give the online safety bill the teeth needed to drive a culture change within the heart of tech companies that will help protect children from future tragedies,” said Richard Collard, the associate head of child safety online policy at the NSPCC.