U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May should legislate to prosecute or fine social media companies such as Facebook Inc, Twitter Inc and Google Inc if they fail to remove illegal content, a panel that advises her on ethics said. Paul Bew, chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, called on the government to shift the liability of content to the companies, so they become publishers, not merely platforms for content. The recommendation is the latest in a growing debate about how to tackle online abuse. The independent ethics watchdog also called for a new offense to be created of intimidating candidates for parliamentary office and their staff after hearing that lawmakers, especially women, have received death, rape and racially-aggravated threats online. “The increasing scale and intensity of this issue demands a serious response,” said Bew, a non-affiliated lawmaker in the upper House of Lords and professor of politics at Queen’s University, Belfast. “More must be done to combat online behavior in particular and we have been persuaded that the time has come for the government to legislate to shift the liability for illegal content online towards social media companies.”
In June 2017 Germany became the first European Union member state to pass a law creating time-specific take-down provisions for social media platforms. Bew’s panel, which is made up of lawmakers and non-political appointees, said Britain’s exit from the bloc, due in March 2019, provides an opportunity for independent action to tackle the issue. “Facebook, Twitter and Google are not simply platforms for the content that others post; they play a role in shaping what users see,” the panel said in. Members are “deeply concerned” about the failure of the companies to collect data on how quickly they take down offensive and illegal material, it said, adding that “their lack of transparency is part of the problem.” Patrick McLoughlin, Chairman of May’s Conservative Party, welcomed the report and said such “unjustifiable abuse” undermines free speech. “Those running for public office should be held to account at the ballot box and in the media, but such online abuse ultimately undermines free speech and weakens our democracy,” he said in an email.