Tuesday 11 May 2021 2:23 pm

Queen’s speech: Anger over social media safety laws as online scams excluded

Campaigners have hit out at the government’s decision not to include scams in new legislation aimed at stamping out online harms.

Plans to hold tech firms liable for harmful material posted to their platforms moved forward today after the Online Safety Bill was confirmed in the Queen’s Speech.

The draft laws will force companies such as Facebook and Google to clamp down on illegal content and establish a duty of care over users.

Regulation will be overseen by Ofcom, which will be granted powers to fine offending companies up to 10 per cent of annual turnover or £18m — whichever is greater.

In the Queen’s Speech the government said the new laws will “lead the way in ensuring internet safety for all, especially for children, whilst harnessing the benefits of a free, open and secure internet”.

But campaign groups hit out at ministers for failing to include online scams in the new measures, arguing the case for doing so was “overwhelming”.

“Online scams have a devastating financial and emotional impact on victims – and too often platforms like Facebook and Google are leaving their users worryingly exposed to criminals operating on their sites,” said Anabel Hoult, chief executive of consumer group Which.

Martin Lewis, founder of Moneysavingexpert.com, said the government had “stumbled at the first fence” by not including scams.

“We live in a world where the policing of scams is dangerously underfunded, leaving criminals to get away with fraud with impunity. This was a chance to at least deny them the ‘oxygen of publicity’ by making big tech responsible for the scammers adverts it is paid to publish,” he said.

“By not doing so the government has failed to protect millions, in the midst of a pandemic, from one of the most damaging online harms to their financial and mental health.”

While the draft laws were confirmed today, the details have not yet been finalised and the legislation could be extended to include online scams at the committee stage.

The new laws, which were first set out in 2019, come amid growing criticism of tech firms for failing to halt the spread of harmful material such as disinformation, terrorist content and abuse.

Will Moy, chief executive of fact checking charity Full Fact, said the new bill was a “necessary and overdue” response.

“A year of conspiracy theories and false health advice has shown the threat bad information poses to all our lives. We cannot go on relying on the internet companies to make decisions on online misinformation without independent scrutiny and transparency.”

But he said the bill should be closely scrutinised by parliament to ensure freedom of expression was protected.