Is it time to threaten Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg with jail?
That’s the view espoused by some U.K. lawmakers this week, where the House of Commons is debating the Online Safety Bill. The legislation is aimed at preventing access to material that promotes eating disorders and self-harm. Companies including Meta Platforms
will have duties to remove illegal material online, particularly relating to terrorism and child sexual abuse, or risk heavy fines.
The opposition Labour Party has taken the stance that fines are not enough. Under the legislation, the U.K. communications regulator could levy fines of up to 10% of global revenue.
“It may be a drop in the ocean to the likes of Elon Musk or Mark Zuckerberg—these multibillionaires who are taking over social media and using it as their personal plaything. They are not going to listen to fines; the only way they are going to listen, sit up and take notice is if criminal liability puts their neck on the line and makes them answer for some of the huge failures of which they are aware,” said Alex Davies-Jones, who represents Pontypridd, Wales for Labour, in a House of Commons debate.
Jeremy Wright, the culture secretary, immediately disagreed. “I am afraid I cannot agree with the honorable lady that the fines would be a drop in the ocean. These are very substantial amounts of money,” said Wright.
Even lawmakers that didn’t want technology executives jailed still expressed an interest in having their powers checked. “This loose cannon, Elon Musk, is an enormously wealthy man, and he is quite strange, isn’t he? He is intrinsically imbued with the power of Silicon Valley and those new techno-masters of the universe. We are dealing with those realities, and this bill is very imperfect,” said Julian Knight, a Conservative lawmaker.
Another Conservative, David Davis, likened the companies to “modern buccaneer states.” “I am normally a deregulator, but we need more than one bill to do what we seek to do today,” said Davis.
In addition to resisting the idea of criminal punishment, the Conservatives also dropped the so-called legal-but-harmful clause.