'Get serious on child safety or get out of the UK', former Facebook exec tells social media companies

Richard Allan said the new Online Safety Act could finally force social media giants like Facebook, Instagram and TikTok to act.

BATH, UNITED KINGDOM - DECEMBER 19: A 12-year-old boy looks at an iPhone screen showing various social media apps including TikTok, Facebook and X, on December 19, 2023 in Bath, England. The amount of time children spend on screens each day rocketed during the Covid pandemic by more than 50 per cent, the equivalent of an extra hour and twenty minutes. Researchers say that unmoderated screen time can have long-lasting effects on a child's mental and physical health. Recently TikTok announced that every account belonging to a user below age 18 have a 60-minute daily screen time limit automatically set. (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)
The new Online Safety Act aims to make social media less of a 'wild west' for children. (Getty Images)

A former Facebook executive has said social media companies have a clear choice to make: Do more to keep young people safe from harmful content or get out of the UK.

Richard Allan, who is now a Liberal Democrat peer in the House of Lords, welcomed the Online Safety Act, which was passed last year, with some aspects of the law coming into effect in January. The legislation gives regulator Ofcom more power to tackle illegal content online, and forces social media firms to make their platforms safer for children.

It comes after the two teenagers who murdered transgender schoolgirl Brianna Ghey were handed life sentences, following a trial which revealed that one of the killers, Scarlett Jenkinson, was obsessed with watching videos of extreme violence and real killings online.

This week also saw Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook and Instagram's parent company Meta, grilled at a Senate committee hearing on children's online safety. He was accused of having "blood on his hands" and apologised to parents who say the content they viewed on social media played a role in their deaths.

Allan, who left Facebook in late 2019 after working there for over a decade, said the new law will help "tip over the balance of power" that tech giants currently have over governments and force them to make a change.

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He told the BBC's Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg programme: “There are some really onerous things that companies will have to do if they want to keep serving children in the UK, and that’s in the bill, and they’ll have a choice. They could get out of the UK market, or they could get their act together, those are their only two choices.

“They haven’t got a choice to carry on as they are under this legislation, and I think we will actually see some services withdrawing from serving children in the UK because they’ll find it too difficult. The ones who have sexualised content for example, they won’t be able to do that anymore.

"So, they either have to make sure they can get rid of it all, and prove to Ofcom that they have – they can’t hide, they can’t lie, they have to give Ofcom the information that they need, or they have to get out of the UK market."

Flowers cards, candles and signs for murdered teenager Brianna Ghey on railings on 21st Febuary 2023 in Oxford, United Kingdom. Ghey was a 16-year-old transgender girl and a Year 11 pupil at Birchwood Community High School. (photo by Mike Kemp/In Pictures via Getty Images)
The mother of murdered teenager Brianna Ghey believes her daughter would still be alive today if better safeguards were in place. (Getty Images)

Allan, who in 2017 faced a grilling from politicians from nine countries including the UK over disinformation, fake news and privacy issues on Facebook, said that social media firms had already been working to make their platforms safer, but that the new act could be the final push they need to make meaningful and long-lasting change.

“There are people inside the tech companies who are doing the equivalent of developing the digital seatbelts and the airbags and the things we need to keep them safe," he said. "But their voices are much quieter than those who want the car to go faster, who want it to be shiner, and we need to redress that balance.”

Education secretary Gillian Keegan told the BBC that further proposals are being drawn up, including a potential ban on mobile phones in schools across the country. However, appearing on Kuenssberg's show, Brianna Ghey's mother, Esther Ghey went one step further.

She said she was launching a petition demanding legislation which would mean under-16s would only be able to access child-friendly phones with no access to social media apps. Ghey also suggested that parents' phones could have automatically built-in software which would connect them to their children's devices and see when they are typing certain keywords that could be a cause for concern.

'Brianna could still be alive today if social media was made safer'

Ghey said her daughter had accessed pro-anorexia and self-harm material online and "struggled with her mental health", but said she was "very protective over her phone.

“When Brianna turned around 14 it was so difficult to monitor her phone because she wanted that trust," she told the programme. "If she couldn’t have accessed these sites, she wouldn’t have suffered as much".

She added: “I’d like to see mobile phone companies take more responsibility, it’s so difficult for parents now to safeguard their children. They carry a mobile phone in their pocket 24/7. It’s so difficult to keep on top of what they’re doing.”

FILE PHOTO: Meta's CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on online child sexual exploitation at the U.S. Capitol, in Washington, U.S., January 31, 2024. REUTERS/Nathan Howard/File Photo
Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg apologised to families at a Senate hearing on online safety this week. (Reuters)

Social media and messaging apps had also provided a space for Brianna's killers to run wild with their violent fantasies, having exchanged countless messages discussing murder and torture and plans to kill other children.

Ghey, from Warrington, Cheshire, said she believed "without a doubt" that her daughter would be safe if more safeguards were in place giving parents more power to keep tabs on their children's browsing history. She added: “The parents would know and they’d be able to get them some kind of help."

What does the Online Safety Act do?

The Online Safety Act makes businesses offering online services legally responsible for keeping people in the UK safe – particularly children.

It requires social media platforms to assess the risk that their platforms could be causing harm to children and take effective steps to mitigate the damage, according to Ofcom. They must clearly explain in their terms of service how they are protecting users, and make it easy for users to report content that is illegal or harmful to children.

Websites hosting pornographic content, for example, will be required to "estimate or verify" users ages with techniques such as photo ID or credit card checks. Some platforms will also be required to give people more choice and control over what they see online, which may also apply to adults exposed to violent or sexualised content against their will.

The legislation is being introduced in phases this year, with six new criminal offences coming into force on 31 January 2024. One covers the sending of knowingly false information with the aim of causing "non-trivial" psychological or physical harm, with a maximum sentence of six months imprisonment.

Sending threats of death or serious harm will carry a maximum sentence of five years, with the same penalty for communication encouraging or assisting self-harm. "Cyberflashing" – sending photographs of someone’s genitals with the intent to cause distress or humiliation is punishable by up to two years, as is sharing or threatening to share an intimate photograph or film without consent.

Sending flashing images with the intention of harming people with epilepsy, known as "epilepsy-trolling", will be punishable by up to five years in prison.