Ministers will bring forward legislation to protect children from harmful content online that will not limit freedom of speech.
Michelle Donelan, the culture secretary, will bring the Online Safety Bill back to parliament this month after repeated delays.
Rishi Sunak raised concerns during the Tory leadership contest that the bill could suppress freedom of speech because the government could define content that was “legal but harmful”.
It led to concerns that social media sites could remove content that was contentious rather than genuinely harmful. The provisions have been watered down and there will be more of an emphasis on making companies enforce their terms and conditions.
Those that fail to do so will face significant fines. In the summer Sunak said: “I have two young girls who are at the age when they’re starting to go online more. I’m quite worried about all of that. I’m concerned about what they could end up looking at. The exposure to explicit — sometimes horrific — material at that age is wrong.”
However, he added: “The challenge is whether it strays into the territory that suppresses free speech. The bit in particular is around this area where the government is saying here’s some content that’s legal but harmful. That’s this kind of area which people have rightly said well what does that mean? That’s the bit I would want as prime minister to go and look at to get that right.”
Donelan told Times Radio in September: “[The Online Safety Bill] is a priority and I will make sure we bring it back to parliament as soon as possible. Nothing will change in terms of online safety for children.
“We need to hold social media companies to account. There is one element on free speech for adults that we are looking at to make sure we get the balance right.”
She had said: “I think that for too long we have had these social media giants in effect chipping away at children’s innocence by feeding them this dangerous content. I do think it is grossly wrong and because they haven’t acted to correct that I think it is right that the government steps in to hold them to account.
“I will be strengthening the bill because I think it is important that this government does protect children when they’re using social media companies.”
Donelan has made clear that she expects social media companies will have to do more to verify the age of their users amid concerns that millions of children are ignoring the minimum age limit of 13.
“How they do that — obviously there are different types of technology out there — but the reality is that they are going to have to assure themselves they know the age of their users,” she said.
She said while the government was reviewing the legislation to ensure that it did not affect free speech, protections for children would be central.
“There is a rebalancing that needs to be done within the bill in terms of freedom of speech, and freedom of expression for adults,” she said. “And that is the bit that I have been looking at to make sure that we get that balance right.”
Donelan told TalkTV: “We will be changing the bill, but I will outline how in parliament. We will not edit elements of the bill that impact the safety of children online. For adults, we will be changing it and I will announce more in the coming weeks.”
Last month a coroner ruled that social media companies had contributed to the death of Molly Russell, 14. She died in November 2017 while suffering from depression and the “negative effects of online content”, saying that she was pushed towards posts that romanticised self-harm. It was the first time an inquest has linked social media to the death of a child.News