Ofcom, the UK communications watchdog, has said all social media platforms should work to fight online grooming by not allowing children to be suggested as a “friend” online. It marks just one of many demands made by the UK’s new official online safety regulator as it begins its guidance of the Online Safety Bill.
The demands appear in Ofcom’s first out of four consultations on the UK’s controversial Online Safety Bill (OSB).
It comes after the UK telecoms regulator was granted new powers under the OSB, which was made law last month.
The UK watchdog now has the power to enact large fines and sanctions on Big Tech, social media platforms and others who fail to follow the guidelines.
However, the UK watchdog first needs to publish four consultations on the different areas of the law as part of the government’s phased approach to implementation.
Kostyantyn Lobov, partner at Harbottle & Lewis, told Verdict that the first “consultation provides a useful starting point for businesses to understand how they will need to implement the act”.
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“Once the consultation closes, Ofcom will consider responses and publish a statement setting out its decisions in relation to its consultation proposals, including final versions of the guidance and codes,” Lobov said.
Ofcom’s first consultation has focused on the safety of children online, grooming and child sexual abuse material (CSAM), the least controversial part of the OSB.
According to the watchdog, one in ten 11-18 year olds have been sent naked or semi-naked images.
In its consultation, Ofcom said platforms should ensure that children’s location data is not able to revealed, as well as blocking anyone not on their friends list from messaging them.
Ofcom has also asked said that some platforms will need to enact a technology known as hash-matching to detect and prevent CSAM.
The technology, which is already being used in many search engines and social media platforms, converts every image into a number – this “hash” is then compared to the database of known CSAM images.
Although Ofcom urges that this does not just apply to private or encrypted messages, the bill in some cases could allow forces to break encryption in a search for CSAM.
In an interview with the BBC, Ofcom’s chief executive Dame Melanie Dawes said that there is no “technology solution” that allows scanning to take place without breaking encryption.
Online Safety Bill backlash
This has been controversial for many, as applications like WhatsApp and iMessage all use end-to-end encryption, meaning the tech company is not able to read them.
In March, Meta’s head of chat app said it would not comply with the requirements set out in the online safety bill.
This has been echoed by several other big tech companies, which argue the breaking of end-to-end encryption means an overall decline in security.
In June, over 80 national and international civil society organisations, academics and cyber-experts signed an open letter over the “serious threat to private and encrypted messaging” posed by the OSB.
The letter described the OSB as a “deeply troubling legislative proposal” as, if passed in its current form, it will set the UK on a path to become the “first liberal democracy to require the routine scanning of people’s private chat messages, including chats that are secured by end-to-end encryption”.