The high-profile launch of a campaign to clamp down on social media firms has backfired, as the culture secretary, Matt Hancock, admitted it was likely to be two years before there was any new law.
In a round of media interviews, Hancock said there was no date for legislation but it would be in the “next couple of years”, and he said he was launching a consultation document ahead of a white paper in the autumn.
Hancock also admitted that when he called in representatives of 14 leading internet companies to discuss his ideas, only four turned up.
“The fact that only four turned up gave me a big impetus to drive this legislation through,” he said. “Until now there’s been this argument: work with the companies, do it on a voluntary basis, you’ll do more that way because the lawyers won’t be involved.”
Speaking on BBC1’s The Andrew Marr Show, hosted by Emma Barnett in Marr’s absence, Hancock said: “Having a level playing field is important. There’s no other field of life in the UK where we say these are international companies so we can’t legislate – so we will.”
He said the new legislation would have the same scale of fines for failing to enforce anti-bullying or harassment rules as those in the data protection bill, which is due to become law in the next few weeks. For Google or Facebook that could mean fines of many millions of pounds.
Hancock also wants to fine social media companies that fail to prevent under-13s from signing up for accounts. It is estimated that half of all children aged 11-13 are on Facebook or another social media platform.
Challenged to explain how lower age limits could be enforced and what would trigger a fine, Hancock said it was a matter for broad consultation.
In an interview with ITV’s Peston on Sunday, he suggested a parent might be required to verify a child’s age. “Asking for a parent to verify if someone is old enough is one of the things we are looking at,” he said.
The government said last year it would introduce an internet-wide levy to fund measures to tackle online abuse. However, it now seems there will be a further round of consultation with the sector and charities before any decision is made on how to proceed.
The difficulties of legislating in this field have been illustrated in Germany, where tough new laws on taking down hate speech have had to be reconsidered after complaints that too much content was being removed.