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Sunak urged to accept rebel MPs’ amendment to boost online safety for children

A former Conservative leader is urging Rishi Sunak to accept an amendment that would ensure social media bosses “face punishment” for failures to protect children on their platforms.

The Prime Minister is facing a major backbench rebellion as Tory MPs push for social media bosses to be made criminally liable if they do not block minors from seeing damaging content online.

Close to 50 rebels, including former home secretary Priti Patel and former Tory leader Sir Iain Duncan-Smith, have put their name to the proposed change to the Online Safety Bill.

Sir Iain said the current protection offered by the draft legislation was “weak” and urged ministers to accept the amendment when it comes to the Lords.

He said children needed greater safeguards against seeing “extreme pornography” and material about suicide.

It comes amid a report in The Sun On Sunday that Mr Sunak and Culture Secretary Michelle Donelan were “nearing a deal” with rebels as more joined their ranks.

Veteran Tory MP Sir Bill Cash, in an article for The Daily Telegraph, said amendment leaders were “now in serious and constructive discussions with the Secretary of State” and called for a “decisive breakthrough”.

With Labour backing the amendment, failure to find a compromise would see the Prime Minister on course for his first defeat in the Commons should it be put to a vote on Tuesday during its report stage.

Speaking to LBC, Sir Iain said: “It is feasible to do this.

“We’ve got all sorts of terrible, damaging nonsense on the internet, from suicide right the way through to extreme levels of pornography aimed at children, and general abuse.

“It is time we all co-ordinated together and made sure they don’t get away with this very lax system of actually protecting children.”

Michelle Donelan maternity leave
Culture Secretary Michelle Donelan said she was not ruling out accepting the rebel amendment (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

He added: “If the Government does agree with this, and I hope it will, it will probably want to amend this in the Lords and do it in a way that they think covers some of the technical bits and pieces that may go right or may go wrong.

“I think it’s wholly feasible for this to happen and they (social media companies) shouldn’t be so big that they cannot face punishment for failure.”

The former cabinet minister said criminal liabilities for senior social media managers have been introduced elsewhere in Europe, including Ireland.

He described Dublin as having a “much tougher regime” when it came to internet safety despite being the European HQ for a string of major tech giants.

The rebel amendment is looking to introduce a new clause into the Online Safety Bill to “make it an offence for the provider of a user-to-service not to comply with the safety duties protecting children” which are set out in the draft law.

Ms Donelan last week said she was “not ruling out” such a proposal while No 10 said it would consider the amendment before the Bill’s return.

Molly Russell inquest
Molly Russell took her own life after she had been viewing material on social media linked to anxiety, depression, self-harm and suicide (Family photo/PA)

In its current form, the new internet safety law would require tech companies to remove illegal material from their platforms, with a particular emphasis on protecting children from seeing harmful content.

Social media platforms and other user-generated, content-based sites that break these rules would face large fines from the sector’s new regulator, Ofcom.

But the proposed law would only hold tech bosses liable for failing to give information to the watchdog.

Children’s charity NSPCC and parents of children who have taken their own lives after viewing harmful content have backed the amendment to widen this liability.

Molly Russell was 14 when she took her own life in 2017 after viewing harmful material linked to anxiety, depression, self-harm and suicide on social media.

Her father, Ian Russell, said including senior manager liability in the Bill was a way to “focus tech bosses’ minds to ensure their platforms are safe online spaces for children”.