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MP Damian Collins on why the government should consider fining big tech

The government should consider fining social media companies that fail to swiftly remove harmful content from their platforms, according to the chair of the parliamentary inquiry into fake news.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman, Damian Collins, a Conservative MP, suggested social media companies would invest more in moderating content in the UK if the government held them legally responsible for harmful material.

Earlier this year, the German government introduced €50m fines for tech companies that do not act on reports of illegal content within 24 hours. “The consequence is that one in six people Facebook moderators works in Germany,” said Collins. “The fine is high enough to make sure they comply.”

The government has previously raised the prospect of taxing social media companies to compensate for the cost of online radicalisation. Theresa May has also said that Silicon Valley firms should be liable for abuse on their platforms.

Collins’ comments come just over a week after his committee published its first report on the rise of fake news and micro-targeted political advertising. It calls for a new classification for social media companies that defines them as neither publisher nor platform.

Collins adds: “The question will be: if we establish liability in law, who’s responsible for determining that they’ve complied? Should it be the government? Should it be a regulator like Ofcom?” 

Ofcom is already drawing up proposals for regulating social media companies. In July, its director, Sharon White, wrote in the Times that “the argument for independent regulatory oversight of their activities has never been stronger”.

Another option under consideration by the committee is a move to expose companies to civil action. Collins said: “Someone could take legal action against Facebook as a consequence of the harm that their failure to act caused.”

One of the other recommendations of the report is for the Information Commissioner’s Office to be granted the power to audit social media firms’ algorithms. “Rather like the Financial Conduct Authority has the power to investigate a bank, the ICO really need behind closed doors the same powers to go in,” said Collins.

“Where there are grounds for concern, the should be able to investigate the data they gather and share and curate through these algorithms.”

The government is due to publish an internet safety whitepaper this autumn that will take into consideration the inquiry and Ofcom’s recommendations.