The Government is due to appoint Ofcom, which is responsible for regulating broadcasters, with the additional responsibility of regulating companies with online platforms.
The 2019 ‘Online Harms White Paper’ called for internet companies to take responsibility for the harmful user-generated content on their platforms, with a statutory duty of care enforced by a government regulator.
The Government has indicted that future legislation will protect freedom of expression by not targeting content which is legal and offensive. Instead, it will advise internet companies to lay out what content is permissible “in clear and accessible terms and conditions” and perform their own enforcement.
Facebook, its subsidiary Instagram, YouTube and other major social media platforms are perceived as the key targets of the proposals. In recent years, these platforms have attracted intense criticism for their tardy response in removing disturbing content, such as the widely shared livestream of the deadly terrorist attack in Christchurch, New Zealand.
Ofcom is expected to be given the power to leverage large fines if these platforms fail to protect users – particularly young users – from illegal and other harmful content such as terrorist propaganda, child pornography and material promoting suicide. It will also be responsible for ensuring that the internet companies have the necessary systems and processes in place to fulfil their duty of care to their users.
Culture Secretary Nicky Morgan and Home Secretary Priti Patel said that Ofcom’s existing responsibilities as a communications regulator made it the appropriate choice to regulate internet platforms.
“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,” 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.”
Ofcom announced the appointment of a new CEO, civil servant Dame Melanie Dawes, in preparation for its vastly expanded responsibilities. Ofcom’s internet CEO, Jonathan Oxley, welcomed the decision, commenting: “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.”
Julian Knight, the chair-elect of the House of Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Committee, has warned that the government is failing to demonstrate the necessary urgency with regards to the issue.
“The DCMS Committee in the last parliament led calls for urgent legislation to prevent tech companies walking away from their responsibilities to tackle harmful content on their sites,” Knight said. “Today’s statement fails to demonstrate the urgency that is required.
“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.”