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Tech execs could be jailed for failing to protect kids: UK proposal

The Union Jack flag flies on top of the British Parliament Building in London, England.

Wilfred Frost | CNBC

Tech executives could face the possibility of jail time for breaching online safety standards under a proposal in the UK after Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s government reached an agreement with Conservative lawmakers who sought to amend the Online Safety Bill.

The legislation is a highly anticipated bill that aims to make the internet safer for kids by enforcing age verification requirements and putting more responsibility on tech platforms to shield minors from harmful content.

The latest agreement could mean severe punishment for company leaders who deliberately fail to protect children from online harm. Michelle Donelan, the UK’s secretary of state for digital, culture, media and sport, said in a statement Tuesday that the changes “deliver our shared aims of holding people accountable for their actions in a way which is effective and targeted towards child safety, whilst ensuring the UK remains an attractive place for technology companies to invest and grow.”

Conservative lawmakers had proposed an amendment to impose criminal liability, including the possibility of a jail term of up to two years, on senior managers for failing to meet the child safety requirements. Donelan said in the statement that she’s “sympathetic to the aims of the amendment,” but believes the bill already includes other provisions for holding senior managers accountable.

Still, she said, the final amendment “will be carefully designed to capture instances where senior managers, or those purporting to act in that capacity, have consented or connived in ignoring enforceable requirements, risking serious harm to children.”

Criminal penalties would include imprisonment and fines “commensurate with similar offences,” she said.

“While this amendment will not affect those who have acted in good faith to comply in a proportionate way, it gives the Act additional teeth to deliver change and ensure that people are held to account if they fail to properly protect children,” Donelan said.

Critics of the legislation fear the age verification stipulations will lead to invasions of privacy and have a chilling effect on speech.

Bills seeking to protect kids in similar ways have also been introduced in the US with bipartisan support. California passed its own Age-Appropriate Design Code, modeled off of UK guidelines, that similarly puts more of the onus on platforms to protect kids from online harms.

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