Ofcom set for United Kingdom online harms role

Alonzo Simpson
February 14, 2020

For Labour, Tracy Brabin, Shadow Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, said that it was shameful that almost a year after the White Paper, three years after its promise to legislate on online harms, and more than a decade after the first tragic social media suicides were reported, all the Government has to show is an 'initial consultation response.' She said: "Today's proposals are long overdue, and nothing short of legislation will reassure families that their loved ones are safe online". The proposals will be fleshed out in coming months, and a person familiar with the matter told Bloomberg that the regulator is likely be given the power to fine companies such as Facebook and Twitter if they fail to protect United Kingdom users from harmful content.

In a statement, Digital Secretary Baroness Morgan said: "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".

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 will then be for Ofcom to decide when and how companies have breached that duty and what the punishment should be.

This morning, the Government published its initial response (the "Response") to last year's Online Harms White Paper consultation. However, before the regulatory framework is completely operational, the Government expects to produce "voluntary" codes in the coming months to tackle the more serious harms "where there is a risk to national security or to the safety of children".

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Social media companies like Facebook and Instagram will be subject to more scrutiny in the United Kingdom over harmful content appearing on their platforms, with new powers awarded to a government-appointed regulator. Ofcom will get new powers to carry out its extended responsibilities.

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 response also states that this will cover "only a very small proportion of United Kingdom businesses (estimated to account to less than 5%)", but implicitly acknowledges that this is not always a straightforward question by stating that "guidance will be provided to give clarity on whether or not the services they provide or functionality on their website would fall into the scope". The consultation previous year had considered forcing platforms to withdraw any services that facilitate extremely serious harms such as usage by terrorists.

However, not all areas of the government are pleased with the new legislation.

As well as the digital services tax plan, last month, Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham unveiled a code of conduct created to protect children's data online so they're less exposed to damaging content.

Ofcom is described as having a "proven track record" in regulating telecoms in the United Kingdom, and the government hopes that greater powers will enable it to control, remove and prevent the appearance of content such as bullying, terrorism and child abuse. Platforms' content policies are incredibly broad and restrict free speech far beyond the limitations set in law.

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