Boris Johnson has insisted new internet safety laws will impose “criminal sanctions with tough sentences” on those responsible for allowing “foul content” on their platforms.
The Prime Minister sounded the warning to social media giants as he told MPs the Online Harms Bill will make progress in the Commons before Christmas.
The legislation is expected to force the biggest tech firms, such as Facebook and Google, to abide by a duty of care to users, overseen by Ofcom as the new regulator for the sector.
Mr Johnson was pushed by Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer to use the “inescapable desire” of MPs, in the aftermath of the killing of Conservative Sir David Amess (Southend West), to “clamp down on the extremism, the hate and the abuse that festers online”.
But Sir Keir said closing down anonymous accounts would not have “saved Sir David” nor prevented other attacks, adding “arrogant” social media firms should be made to take responsibility for their platforms.
The pair agreed to work together on the issue when it was raised at Prime Minister’s Questions.
Conservative former minister Mark Francois earlier this week called for the Bill to be toughened up as he proposed “David’s law” in memory of Sir David.
Speaking in the Commons, Sir Keir said: “It’s three years since the Government promised an Online Safety Bill but it’s not yet before the House.
“Meanwhile, the damage caused by harmful content online is worse than ever.
“Dangerous algorithms on Facebook and Instagram, and Hope Not Hate have shown me an example of violent Islamism and far-right propaganda on TikTok.”
He called on the Prime Minister to “commit to bring forward the second reading of the Online Safety Bill by the end of this calendar year”, adding: “If he does, we’ll support it.”
Mr Johnson replied: “The safety of MPs, indeed of all public servants, everybody who engages with the public is of vital importance. The Online Safety Bill is of huge importance, it’s one of the most important tools in our armoury.”
He added: “What we’re doing is ensuring that we crack down on companies that promote illegal and dangerous content and we’ll be toughing up those provisions.
“What we’re also going to do is ensure that the Online Safety Bill does complete its stages before this House – before Christmas – rather that we do bring it forward before Christmas in the way that he suggests.”
Sir Keir questioned why directors of platforms failing to crack down on extremism would not face criminal sanctions under the Government’s plans.
Mr Johnson later said: “I’ve already said that we are willing to look at anything to strengthen the legislation, I’ve said that we will bring it forward to second reading before Christmas.
“And, yes, of course we will have criminal sanctions with tough sentences for those who are responsible for allowing this foul content to permeate the internet.
“What we hope for also, is that no matter how tough the proposals we produce, that the opposition will support it.”
Sir Keir went on to say there are “clearly problems” with the Government’s counter-extremism strategy.
He said: “The Government’s own independent reviewer has said there is no evidence the Government’s key de-radicalisation programme is effective, and we’ve seen a spate of lone attack killings where the perpetrator invariably radicalised online.
“We all want to stop this across this House but at the moment things are getting worse not better. So what urgent plans does the Prime Minister have to fix these glaring problems?”
Mr Johnson said Labour should withdraw its opposition to legislation which prevents the early release from prison of serious extremists and violent offenders.
Mr Johnson went on: “We will continue to do everything we can to strengthen our counter-terrorism operation, to support all those who are involved in keeping us safe.
“It’s too early to draw any particular conclusions from the appalling killing of our colleague, but we will draw all relevant conclusions from that investigation.”
Concluding, Sir Keir said: “The inescapable desire of this House on Monday to finally clamp down on the extremism, the hate and the abuse that festers online is incredibly welcome.
“But closing down anonymous accounts would not have prevented the murder of Jo Cox nor of Pc Keith Palmer and, although we don’t know the full circumstances surrounding his death, nor would it have saved Sir David.
“If we’re to get serious about stopping violent attacks, we need to stop online spaces being safe spaces for terrorists.
“We need to ensure that unaccountable, arrogant social media companies take responsibility for their platforms, we need to end the delays, get on with the legislation and clean out the cesspit once and for all.”
Sir Keir invited Mr Johnson to work on a cross-party basis to “tackle violent extremism and its enablers together”.
Mr Johnson replied: “I’m delighted to join (Sir Keir) in committing to tackle online harms together, to tackling violent extremism together, that is what the Government is doing.
“That’s why we’ve brought forward the Online Harms Bill, that’s why we’re investing record sums in tackling counter-terrorism.”