Under the proposed laws, any company that allows users to share or discover user-generated content or interact with each other online will face fines if they fail to adhere to a mandatory duty of care to protect users.
Other measures in the Online Harms White Paper include forcing online companies to end the sharing of content about child abuse or terrorism, and demanding they publish annual reports revealing the amount of harmful content on their platforms, and how they have responded to this.
The government is also set to appoint a regulator to enforce the tougher measures, including issuing fines, blocking access to sites and potentially imposing liability on individual company employees, which will at first be funded by the industry.
The children’s commissioner for England Anne Longfield has campaigned for internet companies to be bound by a statutory duty of care to prioritise the safety and wellbeing of child-aged users, and for them to be more transparent about harmful content.
Longfield called for the government to introduce the new measures as quickly as possible.
“The social media companies have spent too long ducking responsibility for the content they host online and ensuring those using their apps are the appropriate age,” she said.
“The introduction of a statutory duty of care is very welcome and something I have long been calling for.
“Any new regulator must have bite. Companies who fail in their responsibilities must face both significant financial penalties and a duty to publicly apologise for their actions and set out how they will prevent mistakes happening in the future.”
The charity’s chief executive Peter Wanless said the government’s proposed strategy would be “hugely significant” and could “make the UK a world pioneer in protecting children online”.
“For too long social networks have failed to prioritise children’s safety and left them exposed to grooming, abuse, and harmful content,” he said.
“So it’s high time they were forced to act through this legally binding duty to protect children, backed up with hefty punishments if they fail to do so.”
The plans also include the creation of a media literacy strategy to give people the skills to recognise and deal with deceptive and malicious behaviours online, including grooming.
“Despite our repeated calls to action, harmful and illegal content – including child abuse and terrorism – is still too readily available online,” he said.
“That is why we are forcing these firms to clean up their act once and for all. I made it my mission to protect our young people – and we are now delivering on that promise.”