Ofcom to become UK Internet regulator

Yolanda Curtis
February 14, 2020

United Kingdom broadcast media watchdog Ofcom is being given new powers to enforce a legal "duty of care" over social media, the government has announced.

The watchdog will ensure that social media platforms take an active role in taking down material deemed harmful for users.

Those suggestions were outlined in a set of proposals published last April by the government of former prime minister Theresa May.

Ofcom will provide guidance to help businesses understand whether the services they provide would fall into the scope of the regulation.

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.

"New rules are needed so that we have a more common approach across platforms and private companies aren't making so many important decisions alone", said Rebecca Stimson, Facebook's head of United Kingdom public policy.

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

Daniel Dyball, UK executive director at the Internet Association, said: "Internet companies are committed to working with government to achieve our shared goals of keeping people safe online and ensuring that the internet continues to deliver benefits to the economy and society".

Ofcom, which now watches TV and radio organisations like the BBC, will be able to hold tech and social media companies to account if they do not adequately protect users from harmful content, including that associated with terrorism and child abuse. 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".

When considering the online harms which will be prohibited, the Response differentiates between illegal content and content that is not illegal but has "the potential to cause harm", with examples being given of "online bullying, intimidation in public life, or self-harm and suicide imagery".

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

The government has suggested it expects companies to use a range of tools including age assurance and age verification technologies to protect younger people from accessing inappropriate and harmful content. Government will be setting up the direction of the policy while Ofcom would have the freedom to draw up and adapt the details.

"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", mentioned Knight.

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