Ofcom set for UK online harms role

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UK Digital Secretary Nicky Morgan and Home Secretary Priti Patel have announced the government is minded to appoint communications watchdog Ofcom as the regulator to enforce rules to make the Internet a safer place.

The announcement comes as the government publishes its initial response to the public consultation on the Online Harms White Paper.

The move is part of plans to protect children and vulnerable people online and give consumers greater confidence to use technology. The government suggests it will provide the certainty technology businesses need to flourish and innovate while creating a fair and proportionate regulatory environment.

The regulator will play a key role in enforcing a statutory duty of care to protect users from harmful and illegal terrorist and child abuse content. It is another step towards achieving the government’s pledge to make the UK the safest place in the world to be online.

Ofcom will get new powers to carry out its extended responsibilities. This will include making sure online companies have the systems and processes in place to fulfil the duty of care to keep people using their platforms safe.

“With Ofcom at the helm of a proportionate and strong regulatory regime, we have an incredible opportunity to lead the world in building a thriving digital economy, driven by groundbreaking technology, that is trusted by and protects everyone in the UK,” declared Morgan. “We will give the regulator the powers it needs to lead the fight for an Internet that remains vibrant and open but with the protections, accountability and transparency people deserve.”

“While the Internet can be used to connect people and drive innovation, we know it can also be a hiding place for criminals, including paedophiles, to cause immense harm,” added Patel. “It is incumbent on tech firms to balance issues of privacy and technological advances with child protection. That’s why it is right that we have a strong regulator to ensure social media firms fulfil their vital responsibility to vulnerable users.”

The government is setting out how different approaches to legal and illegal content will be taken and freedom of speech will be protected, as well as the businesses that are likely to be in scope.

The government is minded to legislate to appoint Ofcom and believes that with its experience of overseeing the broadcasting and telecoms sectors, it has the expertise and independence needed to take on the challenge of regulating online harms.

The regulator will hold companies to account if they do not tackle internet harms such as child sexual exploitation and abuse and terrorism.

The initial response also sets out decisions the government has taken on a number of the other proposals put forward in the Online Harms White Paper:

  • Platforms will need to ensure that illegal content is removed quickly and minimise the risk of it appearing, with particularly robust action on terrorist content and online child sexual abuse.
  • The government will ensure Ofcom has a clear responsibility to protect users’ rights online. This will include paying due regard to safeguarding free speech, defending the role of the press, promoting tech innovation and ensuring businesses do not face disproportionate burdens.
  • To protect freedom of expression, the regulations will not stop adults from accessing or posting legal content that some may find offensive. Instead companies will be required to explicitly state what content and behaviour is acceptable on their sites in clear and accessible terms and conditions and enforce these effectively, consistently and transparently.
  • The regulation will only apply to companies that allow the sharing of user-generated content – for example, through comments, forums or video sharing. Fewer than five per cent of UK businesses will be in scope.
  • Ofcom will provide guidance to help businesses understand whether the services they provide would fall into the scope of the regulation. Business-to-business services which pose a low risk to the general public will not be in scope. A business simply having a social media presence does not necessarily mean it will be in scope.
  • The government will set the direction through legislation, but decisions on processes and procedures will be taken by Ofcom. This will mean regulation is flexible and can adapt to the rapid emergence of new harms and technologies. It will be up to Ofcom to monitor new and emerging online dangers and take appropriate enforcement action.

The government will publish a full consultation response in Spring 2020. This will set out further details of the potential enforcement powers Ofcom may have. The government will carefully consider the full impacts of this potential change both for Ofcom and to inform broader work on the regulatory landscape.

As set out in the Queen’s Speech, the government is in parallel developing legislation at pace and will bring it forward once Parliamentary time allows.

As well as the announcement that the Government is minded to appoint Ofcom as the regulator for online harms, the Ofcom Board has appointed Dame Melanie Dawes as its new Chief Executive.

Given the Government will be considering the detail of this new regulatory agenda and the role Ofcom will have, and now that the new Chief Executive is in place, the Secretary of State has indicated that the Government would like a Chair to be in place who is able to oversee the successful implementation of any changes in full.

Lord Burns has therefore agreed to step down to enable a new Chair to be in place by the end of this year. He has agreed to stay on until the new Chair is in place to ensure a smooth transition.

DCMS Committee Chair elect Julian Knight MP said: 

“The DCMS Committee in the last parliament led calls for urgent legislation to prevent tech companies walking away from their responsibilities to tackle harmful content on their sites. Today’s statement fails to demonstrate the urgency that is required.

“We called for the new regulator to be completely independent from Government which is why we demanded a right of veto over the appointment.

“The regulator must take a muscular approach and be able to enforce change through sanctions that bite. That means more than a hefty fine – it means having the clout to disrupt the activities of businesses that fail to comply, and ultimately, the threat of a prison sentence for breaking the law.

“I would expect the DCMS Committee to be given the opportunity to scrutinise all aspects of the forthcoming Bill before it becomes law.”


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