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February 12, 2020updated 13 Feb 2020 2:57pm

UK watchdog Ofcom to regulate online harms

By Ellen Daniel

The UK government has announced that it intends to appoint communications watchdog Ofcom as online harms regulator.

The broadcasting and telecoms regulator will have the power to enforce new rules set out in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport’s online harms consultation.

The government has also published its initial response to the public consultation on the Online Harms White Paper, a “world-leading package of measures to keep UK users safe online” including measures to “make companies more responsible for their users’ safety online, especially children and other vulnerable groups”.

The White Paper puts forward plans for a new law that would mean online companies would have a duty of care for their users, overseen by Ofcom, to ensure they are safe from online harms.

Until now, it has been up to online platforms to monitor content, and remove material that violates their terms of use. However, Ofcom will now be able to hold companies to account for their response to harmful content such as child abuse images or terrorist material, ensuring that it is removed quickly and that measures are in place to prevent it from appearing in the first place.

Ofcom to take charge of fighting online harms

Although it is not yet clear how these rules will be enforced, the government has said that the rules are designed to “provide the certainty technology businesses need to flourish and innovate while creating a fair and proportionate regulatory environment”.

Ofcom will also be responsible for “paying due regard to safeguarding free speech, defending the role of the press, promoting tech innovation and ensuring businesses do not face disproportionate burdens”.

In a statement, Ofcom said:

“We share the Government’s ambition to keep people safe online and welcome that it is minded to appoint Ofcom as the online harms regulator.

“We will work with the Government to help ensure that regulation provides effective protection for people online and, if appointed, will consider what voluntary steps can be taken in advance of legislation.”

Harm vs overreach

The role of governments and other independent organisations in regulating social media platforms is one that has been the subject of debate, with a balance between encouraging innovation, while also halting the spread of illegal or harmful content essential.

However, the death of teenager Molly Russel, who took her own life after viewing distressing content on Instagram prompted calls for greater regulation to protect users.

The government is due to publish a full consultation response in Spring 2020.

“Across the world, online harms are governed by a patchwork of laws and regulations covering specific types of content”, says Ben Packer, lawyer at Linklaters. “Though the proposals are still in development, it is clear that the Government is committed to implementing one of the most ambitious regulatory frameworks yet, which will have a significant impact on tech firms with UK users.”

According to a study by Ofcom from 2019, 79% of children surveyed aged 12-15 said they had had a potentially harmful online experience in the past year.

Felicity Burch, CBI Director of Digital and Innovation, said:

“The UK can show global leadership and set the international yardstick for how best to protect people from harm online, while also supporting our flourishing digital economy.

“Effective regulation can play a leading role in tackling online harm and building trust in technology. This initial response achieves a good balance between ensuring safety and enabling business growth. In particular, we welcome an expanded role for Ofcom as the new regulator – something the CBI called for – and it should be given the tools it needs to succeed. Alongside this it’s great the Government has increased its focus on education and innovation.

“As the proposals develop, business must play a vital role in shaping the standards and providing the practical expertise to make sure the regulation works in practice.”

Read more: ICO publishes guidelines to protect children’s privacy online.