Rishi Sunak appears to have bowed to pressure from rebel Tory MPs to make social media bosses criminally liable for failing to protect children from online harm.
The prime minister was facing a major backbench rebellion as around 50 of his MPs put their names to an amendment to the Online Safety Bill.
The amendment called for tougher punishments for tech chiefs who fail to block children from seeing damaging content on their platforms.
Culture Secretary Michelle Donelan has reached a deal with rebels after talks over the weekend, according to a source close to her, allowing the prime minister to avoid an embarrassing defeat in the Commons.
The source suggested Ms Donelan likes the intention of the amendment, but the wording “wasn’t quite right”.
It is understood the rebels have dropped the amendment before its return to the Commons later today – and the culture secretary is working with them to table it in the House of Lords “in a more workable format”.
The move to appease the rebels marks the third time Mr Sunak has backed down in the face of uprisings on his backbenches since entering Number 10 in October, having ditched onshore wind farms and planning reforms intended to boost housebuilding.
Former cabinet ministers, including ex-home secretary Priti Patel and former Conservative leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith, are among those backing the change to the Online Safety Bill.
With Labour supporting it too, failure to find a compromise would have seen Mr Sunak on course for his first major defeat in the Commons.
A government source told Sky News: “Michelle’s main priority has always been strengthening the protections for children online, whilst ensuring adults have more choice and control over what they see.
“She has been clear from the beginning that any additions to the Online Safety Bill need to work in practice and that she would take a pragmatic and common sense approach prioritising children.
“She is pleased that colleagues will no longer be pushing their amendments to a vote following constructive conversation and work.”
The rebel amendment suggested introducing a new clause into the Online Safety Bill to “make it an offence for the provider of a user-to-service not to comply with the safety duties protecting children” which are set out in the draft law.
In its current form, the new internet safety law would require tech companies to remove illegal material from their platforms, with a particular emphasis on protecting children from seeing harmful content.
Social media platforms and other user-generated, content-based sites that break the rules would face large fines from the sector’s new regulator, Ofcom.
But the proposed law would only have held tech bosses liable for failing to give information to the watchdog.
Sky’s chief political correspondent Jon Craig said: “The government has confirmed a major climbdown in the face of a threatened rebellion which could have lead to a government defeat on the Online Safety Bill.
“On the eve of a big showdown, in which up to 50 Tory MPs were threatening to vote against the government, the government has pledged to not accept the amendment put down by the rebels, but to bring it back in the Lords.
“The government has backed down because it would have potentially lost the vote.”
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Current protection ‘weak’
Sir Iain Duncan Smith had said the proposed protection offered by the draft legislation was “weak” and children needed greater safeguards against seeing “extreme pornography” and material about suicide.
Lucy Powell, the shadow culture secretary, said that Labour want the regulator to have “sufficient teeth” to make Silicon Valley bosses “sit up and take notice”.
The NSPCC has been helping drive a campaign to have managers made criminally responsible for failing to offer protection to youngsters.
Richard Collard, associate head of child safety online policy at the children’s charity, said: “By committing to senior manager liability, the culture secretary has sent a strong and welcome signal that she will give the Online Safety Bill the teeth needed to drive a culture change within the heart of tech companies that will help protect children from future tragedies.
“The government has rightly listened to the concerns raised by MPs and we look forward to working with ministers to ensure the final legislation holds senior managers accountable in practice if their products continue to put children at risk of preventable harm and sexual abuse.”
Ian Russell, the father of schoolgirl Molly Russell, who died by self-harm while suffering “negative effects of online content”, said the threat of imprisonment is “the only thing” that will make the bosses “put safety near the top of their agenda”.
“I think that’s a really important thing in terms of changing the corporate culture at these platforms,” he told BBC Newsnight.