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Ofcom as ‘online harms’ regulator

UK government is minded to appoint the communications watchdog Ofcom as the regulator to enforce rules to make the internet a safer place. The Government has published its initial response to the public consultation on the Online Harms White Paper.

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

In its response, Government covers such issues as where freedom of expression fits in online; and what businesses might fall under the scope of the ‘duty of care’ requirement. It says regulation ‘will establish differentiated expectations on companies for illegal content and activity, versus conduct that is not illegal but has the potential to cause harm. Regulation will therefore not force companies to remove specific pieces of legal content’.

DCMS (Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport) Secretary of State Nicky Morgan said: “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. 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.”

Home Secretary Priti Patel said: “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. 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 Ofcom Board meanwhile has appointed Dame Melanie Dawes as its new Chief Executive.

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Jonathan Oxley, Ofcom’s interim Chief Executive, said: “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.”

For Labour, Tracy Brabin, Shadow Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, said that it was shameful that nearly 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.”

Silkie Carlo, director of privacy rights campaign group Big Brother Watch, said the proposals are set to be a disaster for freedom of expression and privacy online. The regulation would deputise private companies to police the internet and adjudicate over individuals’ right to freedom of expression. In Germany, similar regulation has pressured companies to conduct zealous censorship and surveillance on their platforms, which has been widely condemned by human rights groups. The proposals reek of mission creep and rather than dealing with only illegal content online are also set to explicitly regulate lawful speech, which is a dangerous direction to go.”

“The proposal to give state sponsorship to social media companies’ own terms and conditions is senseless. Platforms’ content policies are incredibly broad and restrict free speech far beyond the limitations set in law. It’s also under those terms that companies like Facebook have license to collect huge amounts of detailed information about billions of users.”

Recently Ofcom research into children’s media and online lives found that more parents than ever feel children’s online use now carries more risks than benefits.

While high-profile YouTube stars remain popular, children are now increasingly drawn to so-called ‘micro’ or ‘nano’ influencers. These often have fewer followers, but might be local to a child’s area or share a niche interest. Older children are using a wider range of social media platforms than ever; WhatsApp in particular.


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