LONDON — A top U.K. official has slammed Meta, the company formerly known as Facebook, for its rebrand, and promised to bring forward criminal sanctions for social media bosses under new laws tackling harmful content on the web.
“Rebranding doesn’t work,” Nadine Dorries, Britain’s minister for digital, culture, media and sport, told lawmakers Thursday at a hearing on the Online Safety Bill. “When harm is caused, we are coming after it.”
Meta was not immediately available for comment when contacted by CNBC but has said the rebrand is focused on its effort to build a so-called “metaverse.”
Facebook changed its name to Meta last week in a move that was criticized by some as an attempt to shift focus away from its recent problems.
The company is facing one of its biggest crises in recent history, following a series of revelations from a former employee-turned-whistleblower. One of the most notable is that the company knew about the harmful effects of its Instagram app on teenagers.
The whistleblower, Frances Haugen, appeared in U.K. Parliament last month, telling lawmakers that regulators have a “slight window of time” to act on the spread of hate speech and other harmful content on Facebook.
Meta says its name change is about a pivot to what it calls the “metaverse,” a kind of shared virtual reality in which multiple users can interact with each other as avatars. The company recently said it plans to hire 10,000 engineers in the European Union to help with its efforts to build the metaverse.
Dorries said Meta should give those extra workers the task of “abiding by your terms and conditions and removing your harmful algorithms” instead.
The U.K. government is progressing with sweeping reforms which would hold social media companies to account over the sharing of harmful and illegal content on their platforms. The legislation threatens fines of up to 10% of global annual revenue or £18 million ($24.2 million), whichever is the higher amount, for failure to comply.
Under draft proposals, executives at social media firms could face criminal action within two years if they fail to stamp out toxic material. However, Dorries vowed to fast-track criminal penalties.
“It will not be two years,” she said. “I’m looking at three to six months for criminal liability.”
The bill is currently being examined by a committee of politicians led by Damian Collins, a lawmaker who took Facebook to task over the Cambridge Analytica privacy scandal in 2018. Dorries urged the committee on Thursday to deliver their recommendations to the government as soon as possible.
Tech giants have said they welcome regulation and are investing heavily into improving safety on their platforms. For its part, Meta says it has 40,000 employees working specifically on platform safety.
Dorries, who is probably more well-known to Brits for her appearance on reality TV show “I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here!,” took over the job of digital minister from Oliver Dowden earlier this year in a surprise reshuffle.
She has sharpened her rhetoric on reining in Big Tech companies in recent weeks, urging for an end to online abuse from anonymous trolls after the killing of British lawmaker David Amess. Some MPs in the ruling Conservative Party believe anonymity on social media platforms contributed to Amess’ death.
“The question of anonymity has dominated the conversation about online abuse over the past week,” Dorries wrote in a column for the Daily Mail newspaper last month. “Rest assured, this Bill will end anonymous abuse, because it will end abuse, full stop.”