Rishi Sunak appears to be bowing to pressure from rebel Tory MPs to demand criminal responsibility for the social media boss for failing to protect children from harm online.
The prime minister faces a major backbench rebellion as around 50 of his MPs put their names on amendments to the online safety bill.
The amendment calls for tougher penalties for technology leaders who fail to prevent children from viewing harmful content on their platforms.
Cultural secretary Michelle Donelan She has struck a deal with the rebels after weekend talks that will allow the prime minister to avoid an embarrassing defeat in the Commons, according to a source close to her.
The source said Ms Donelan liked the intent of the amendment, but the wording was “not quite right”.
The rebels are understood to have dropped the amendment before it returns to the Commons later today – with the culture secretary working with them to bring it to the Lords “in a more workable form”.
The move to appease the rebels marks the third time Mr Sunak has faced an uprising concession from backbenchers since he entered the 10th position last October, after he dropped the Onshore wind farm Planning reforms aimed at boosting housing construction.
former cabinet ministers, including former home secretary Priti Patel and former tory leader Sir Ian Duncan Smith, Is one of those who support changes to the Online Safety Act.
With Labor also backing it, Mr Sunak would suffer his first major defeat in the Commons if a compromise is not found.
A government source told Sky News: “Michelle’s priority has always been to strengthen protections for children online, while ensuring adults have more choice and control over what they see.
“She has been clear from the outset that any additions to the Online Safety Act will need to work in practice, and she will take a pragmatic and commonsense approach, prioritizing children.
“She is pleased colleagues will no longer be putting their amendments to a vote after constructive dialogue and work.”
The Rebel Amendment proposes introducing a new clause in the Online Safety Bill to “criminalize the failure of users to service providers to comply with their safety obligations to protect children set out in the draft law”.
In its current form, the new internet safety law will require tech companies to remove illegal material from their platforms, with a particular emphasis on protecting children from harmful content.
Social media platforms and other user-generated content-based sites that break the rules face hefty fines from the industry’s new regulator, Ofcom.
But the proposed law would only hold tech bosses accountable for failing to provide information to regulators.
Jon Craig, Sky’s chief political reporter, said: “The government has confirmed that it has made significant concessions in the face of the threat of an insurgency that could lead to the government’s defeat on the online safety bill.
“Ahead of a major showdown, as many as 50 Conservative MPs have threatened to vote against the government, which has pledged not to accept the amendment proposed by the rebels but to bring it back to the House of Lords.
“The government has backed down because it could lose the vote.”
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Current protection “weak”
Sir Ian Duncan-Smith has said the protections offered by the draft legislation are “weak” and that children need more protection from “extreme pornography” and material about suicide.
Shadow culture secretary Lucy Powell said Labor wanted the regulator to have “enough teeth” for Silicon Valley bosses to “sit up and pay attention”.
The NSPCC has been helping drive a movement to hold managers criminally liable for failing to protect young people.
Richard Collard, deputy director of online policy for children’s charity Children’s Safe Online, said: “By committing to senior manager accountability, the Culture Secretary has sent a strong and welcome signal that she will give the Online Safety Bill what it needs to drive culture forward. The power to change tech companies at their core will help protect children from future tragedies.
“The government has rightly heard the concerns raised by MPs and we look forward to working with ministers to ensure final legislation holds senior managers accountable in practice if their products continue to put children at risk of preventable harm and sexual abuse .”
Ian Russell, the schoolgirl’s father Molly Russellwho died from self-harm while suffering “the negative effects of online content”, said the threat of jail was “the only thing” that would make bosses “put safety at the top of their agenda”.
“I think it’s a very important thing to do in terms of changing the corporate culture of these platforms,” he told BBC Newsnight.