- 'Legal but harmful' element of online safety bill dropped
- Social media companies will have to strengthen age checks
- Companies could be fined if they fail to tackle illegal content
LONDON, Nov 29 (Reuters) - Britain will not force tech giants to remove content that is "legal but harmful" from their platforms after campaigners and lawmakers raised concerns that the move could curtail free speech, the government said.
Online safety laws would instead focus on the protection of children and on ensuring companies removed content that was illegal or prohibited in their terms of service, it said, adding that it would not specify what legal content should be censored.
Britain, like the European Union and other countries, has been grappling to protect social media users, and in particular children, from harmful content without damaging free speech.
Digital Secretary Michelle Donelan said rather than watering down the bill, she had strengthened protection for children by making companies enforce the age limits they had already set.
"Companies can't just say 'yes we only allow children over 13 to join our platform', then they allow 10-year-olds and actively promote it to them," she told BBC radio. "We're stopping that from happening."
She said companies could face fines of up to 10% of their turnover if they did not have systems in place to restrict underage access.
Britain had previously said social media companies could be fined if they failed to stamp out harmful content such as abuse even if it fell below the criminal threshold, while senior managers could have also faced criminal action.
Donelan said the "harmful but legal" provision, which had been opposed by some lawmakers and had delayed progress of the legislation, would have had "unintended consequences" and eroded free speech.
The government said removing it would also avoid the risk of platforms taking down legitimate posts to avoid sanctions.
The new iteration goes further to protect free speech by stopping companies, such as Facebook-owner Meta and Twitter, removing content or suspending or banning users where there is no breach of their terms of service or the law.
The opposition Labour Party said replacing the "prevention of harm" with an emphasis on free speech undermined the bill's purpose.
"Removing 'legal but harmful' gives a free pass to abusers and takes the public for a ride," said Lucy Powell, Labour's culture spokesperson. "The government has bowed to vested interests, over keeping users and consumers safe."
The government, however, said the bill, which returns to parliament next month, put the onus on tech companies to take down material that was illegal or was in breach of their own terms of service.
If users were likely to encounter controversial content such as the glorification of eating disorders, racism, anti-Semitism or misogyny not meeting the criminal threshold, the platform would have to offer tools to help avoid it, it said.
Donelan said specific types of harmful material could also be outlawed, compelling social media companies to tackle it or face large fines.
"We all agree that stuff should be illegal, let's make it illegal," she told BBC News, adding that the government had already pledged to make the promotion of self harm unlawful.
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