Sharon White, CEO of UK communications regulator Ofcom, has suggested that the body’s experience of regulating broadcasting might be relevant to tackling online harm, as the Government considers possible legislation.
Addressing the Royal Television Society London Conference White noted that there was growing evidence that, for all its undoubted benefits, Internet growth had come at a price.
“In July, the DCMS select committee completed its interim report on disinformation and fake news. Among other things, it looked at the principles that should apply to future regulation. As the communications regulator, we hope to contribute to that discussion: through our duties set by Parliament to encourage media literacy; our independent research into internet use; and our experience of protecting TV audiences she advised.
“So today we have published a paper outlining our experience of tackling harmful content in broadcasting, while protecting freedom of expression. As policymakers develop their plans, we look at how some of our experience there might be relevant to online harm,” she said.
“Content could be harmful because it is illegal, dangerous, misleading or inappropriate for its audience. And it can be delivered in many forms – from TV-like programmes, to videos, images and text. Often these are served up at the same time, on a single screen. And different rules apply, depending on the mode of delivery,” she noted.
“As the broadcasting regulator, we are very conscious of the growing disparity between the safeguards that everyone in this room is required to observe when making traditional TV programmes, and the much more limited ones that apply elsewhere. To illustrate the point, consider the viewing of a typical child in the UK. She spends around 90 minutes a day watching broadcast TV – and more than that on her phone or the Internet. But the protection afforded to her, by a complex set of regulations, varies depending on the service that she happens to be watching,” said White.
“Let’s say she’s watching Absolutely Fabulous with her parents. Like everything else on TV, that programme must abide by a range of detailed rules – covering areas such as crime, sex, drugs, language, violence and self-harm. Or she might watch the same episode of Ab Fab on a catch-up player or Netflix – where it is still regulated, but to a much more limited set of standards under general European law. For example, there are rules on violence, but nothing on swearing. Patsy is off the leash,” she added.
“And if our typical child picks up her phone to watch a clip of the same show on Facebook or YouTube, there is no regulation at all beyond the general law to protect her from harmful content. So the broadcasting and online worlds are competing under different conditions, even as the online world takes up an ever greater share of our time. This has profound consequences for viewers – especially for children, who may well not distinguish between the two.
“Without even knowing it, viewers are watching the same content, governed by different regulation in different places, or by none at all. This is a standards lottery,” she declared.
“If protection matters, and we all believe it does, this cannot be our message to viewers – ‘choose your screen, and take your chances’” she admitted. “Now there are welcome signs that the technology giants are increasingly alive to their responsibilities. Facebook and YouTube are hiring around 30,000 content moderators this year. But trust in them is already weakening. Our research shows that people see social platforms as the single biggest source of online harm – and most people want the rules to be tighter. The role of regulators is evolving too. New European laws will give national regulators some oversight of video-sharing platforms, requiring companies such as YouTube to address child harm, terrorism and hate speech. But most online content will remain unregulated, including words and images on social media, and videos that aren’t on sharing platforms,” she advised.
The UK Government is already considering how to level that playing field. And the DCMS select committee has suggested that broadcasting standards, as defined by Parliament and implemented by Ofcom, should provide the basis for setting standards online,” she noted.
In terms of the challenges of regulating online, White said that Ofcom’s experience and research suggested that the answer is not simply to transplant traditional broadcast regulation, unamended, into the online corpus. “Clearly, the Internet is fundamentally different from television and radio in its nature, audience and scale,” she admitted.
“Looking more widely, evidence shows that people see the Internet quite differently to television. On TV, viewers value impartiality in news, and want to see that guaranteed. But when they go online, they are content to pick from a wealth of different views – often one-sided and opinionated. On an individual level, the internet is an unrivalled tool for people to express their views. If regulation is too blunt, it could undermine freedom of expression. Can these hurdles be overcome? Based on our experience, we believe they can,” she asserted.
According to White, just as TV regulation has had to evolve in the age of digital and on-demand channels, Internet regulation can recognise the pace of change online, suggesting that lessons from broadcasting regulation could help inform the debate about future regulation. “But on the question of exactly how regulation might be applied, and by whom, we are entirely agnostic. Those are rightly matters for the Government and Parliament to decide,” she stated.
So I hope our paper today might prove useful to policymakers – as they work to curtail the Internet’s harmful aspects, while preserving its powerful benefits to society, culture, trade and freedom of expression. For our part, we will keep working closely with Government and our partner bodies – the ICO, the Competition and Markets Authority and the Advertising Standards Authority in the UK; and with overseas regulators to share experiences,” she concluded.