Ofcom's powers expanded to regulate harmful social media content

Nicky Morgan

The watchdog Ofcom is set to be given new powers to tackle "corrosive and abhorrent harms" on social media, the United Kingdom government has announced.

"As the internet continues to grow and transform our lives it is essential that we get the balance right between a thriving, open and vibrant virtual world, and one in which users are protected from harm", Culture Secretary Nicky Morgan and Home Secretary Priti Patel said in a joint ministerial statement Wednesday.

Still under construction, the legislation would place a duty of care on large technology companies to target content from terrorist groups, online disinformation campaigns, and pedophile networks, as well as content that can "cause serious harm". While there is a reference to "UK businesses" in the Response, it does not clarify that only businesses registered in the United Kingdom will be caught within the regulator's scope for the purposes of Online Harms regulations, or whether businesses elsewhere that offer services to individuals in the United Kingdom will also be caught (and if the latter then this raises complex jurisdictional issues which become all the more complex in a post-Brexit world where several tech companies have their European headquarters in the Republic of Ireland).

The government launched its first Online Harms consultation in April a year ago, which received almost 2,500 replies. "I think they understand now that actually regulation is coming". It said officials were working "at pace" to draft a new law.

The general direction will be set through a new piece of legislation, while Ofcom will gain autonomy to monitor online dangers and take the appropriate level of enforcement action.

Proposals were put forward in August which suggested allowing the regulator to issue fines against platforms and websites it judges to have failed to protect users from seeing harmful videos such as those depicting violence or child abuse.

United Kingdom government is minded to appoint the communications watchdog Ofcom as the regulator to enforce rules to make the internet a safer place.

"Two thirds of adults in the United Kingdom are concerned about content online, and close to half say that they have seen hateful content in the past year", Wednesday's report said.

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. Older children are using a wider range of social media platforms than ever; WhatsApp in particular.

The initial response to the consultation has set out the government's thinking at this stage, although the plans are still subject to change between now and when the final response is issued in spring 2020.

Lord Burns has therefore agreed to step down to enable a new Chair to be in place by the end of this year.

"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".

"We called for the new regulator to be completely independent from Government which is why we demanded a right of veto over the appointment". "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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