Social media companies could be fined up to £18m if they fail to protect children and other UK users from harmful online content, the UK government has announced.

The new Online Harms Bill proposes fines for social media firms and the possibility of a UK access ban should companies fail to comply.

Digital Secretary Oliver Dowden proposed the legislation to the House of Commons on Tuesday as part of the UK government’s plans to create a “new age of accountability” for tech companies.

Dowden said that the new legislation means social media companies will have a legal duty of care to users from a range of harms like terrorism to self-harm content.

“Too many people are still exposed to the worst elements of the web: illegal content, racist and misogynistic abuse, and dangerous disinformation,” Dowden said.

He went on to say that people in the UK spend an average of four hours on the internet every day.

Ofcom is to be given the power to fine social media groups of up to £18 million or 10 per cent of an infringing company’s annual global revenues, whichever is higher.

The proposed bill also gives Ofcom the ability to block websites, apps and messaging platforms like Facebook, Twitter and TikTok from being accessed from the UK if they fail to remove or stop distribution of harmful content.

The White paper of the proposed bill highlights that the Internet Watch Foundation blocked at least 8.8 million attempts by UK internet users to access videos and images of children suffering from sexual abuse during the second lockdown.

The legislation will also address other forms of harmful online content, from misinformation about vaccines to pro-anorexia ideas.

In his speech, Dowden said the proposal strikes balance between shielding people from harm, particularly children and ensuring preservation of freedom of expression.

“I’m unashamedly pro tech but that cannot mean a tech free for all,” he said.

The new regulation will affect less than three per cent of businesses in the UK, according to the White paper, with the focus on the biggest, “highest risk online companies where most illegal and harmful activity is taking place”.

Platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter will be in “Category 1 services”, facing tougher responsibilities like requirements to act in respect of content or activity on their services which is legal but harmful to adults.

Most businesses will be libelled as ‘Category 2 services’ which means they will need to address illegal content and protect children.

The Government aims to bring the new bill before Parliament in 2021.

 (Top Image: Pixabay)