By Andrew MacAskill
LONDON (Reuters) - Social media companies should face prosecution for failing to remove racist and extremist material from their websites, according to a report by an influential committee.
Prime Minister Theresa May's ethics watchdog recommends introducing laws to shift the liability for illegal content onto social media firms and calls for them to do more to take down intimidatory content.
Social media companies currently do not have liability for the content on their sites, even when it is illegal, the report by the Committee on Standards in Public Life said.
The recommendations form part of the conclusions of an inquiry into intimidation experienced by parliamentary candidates in an election campaign this year.
"The widespread use of social media has been the most significant factor accelerating and enabling intimidatory behavior in recent years," the report said.
"The committee is deeply concerned about the limited engagement of the social media companies in tackling these issues."
While the report said intimidation in public life is an old problem, the scale and intensity of intimidation is now posing a threat to Britain's democracy.
The report found that women, ethnic minorities and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender political candidates are disproportionately likely to be the targets of intimidation.
The committee heard how racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic and anti-Semitic abuse is putting off some candidates from standing for public office.
Platforms such as Twitter, YouTube and Facebook are criticized for failing to remove abusive material posted online even after they were notified.
The committee said it was "surprised and concerned" Google, Facebook and Twitter do not collect data on the material they take down.
"The companies' failure to collect this data seems extraordinary given that they thrive on data collection," the report said. "It would appear to demonstrate that they do not prioritize addressing this issue of online intimidation."
Twitter said in a statement it has announced several updates to its platform aimed at cutting down on abusive content and it is taking action on 10 times the number of abusive accounts every day compared to the same time last year.
YouTube declined to comment, while Facebook did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Many politicians have become more vocal about the abuse they face after Labour's Jo Cox, a 41-year-old mother of two young children, was shot and repeatedly stabbed a week before Britain's Brexit referendum last year.
(Reporting By Andrew MacAskill; editing by Stephen Addison)