The UK government has suggested new online safety laws that could see internet sites fined and their bossed held personally accountable if they fail to protect users from harmful content like terrorist propaganda and child abuse.

The 100-page Online Harms White Paper from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and Home Office proposes that an independent watchdog will write a "code of practice" for tech companies to abide by.

Companies that flout the rules could face big fines, with bosses also held personally accountable under the new rules if they go ahead.

"The government wants the UK to be the safest place in the world to go online, and the best place to start and grow a digital business," the White Paper states. "Given the prevalence of illegal and harmful content online, and the level of public concern about online harms, not just in the UK but worldwide, we believe that the digital economy urgently needs a new regulatory framework to improve our citizens’ safety online. This will rebuild public confidence and set clear expectations of companies, allowing our citizens to enjoy more safely the benefits that online services offer. "

The UK Culture Secretary, Jeremy Wright, told BBC Breakfast after revealing the new proposals that the fines could be comparable to those available to the Information Commissioner around GDPR rules. That could be up to 4 per cent of a company's turnover.

The White Paper goes on to recommend a regulatory framework for online safety that companies and users would clearly be able to see and understand.

The UK government plans to run a 12-week public consultation on the proposals.

The new White Paper comes following the death of 14-year-old schoolgirl Molly Russell, which her parents said came after she had viewed online material on depression and suicide.

Charities, like the NSPCC, have welcomed the White Paper.

"For too long social networks have failed to prioritise children’s safety and left them exposed to grooming, abuse, and harmful content. 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," Peter Wanless, the company's CEO said in a statement.

However, some industry experts are concerned that there are still many questions left unanswered.

Those include whether the new rules apply to all sites in the UK, or merely the larger social networks, which body will regulate the rules and guidelines, and who will decide what is deemed harmful information and how the rules apply to it.  

techUK, a body that represents around 900 UK tech companies, has also voiced its concerns:

"Some of the key pillars of the Government's approach remain too vague. It is vital that the new framework is effective, proportionate and predictable. Clear legal definitions that allow companies in scope to understand the law and therefore act quickly and with confidence will be key to the success of the new system."

The consultation closes on the 1 July 2019.

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