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Ofcom will ‘have teeth’ in internet regulator role, Patel insists

Image credit: Prateek Katyal on Unsplash

Ofcom will “have the teeth” to enforce its new statutory duty of care on large tech firms, Home Secretary Priti Patel has said in a Daily Telegraph article.

It was announced yesterday that the broadcast regulator will be given the additional responsibility of regulating companies with online platforms.

It 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.

In her article, Patel said the firms had been given the chance “time and again” to demonstrate that they are capable of self-regulation but had failed in some cases. Other firms were creating safe “havens for criminals and predators” she said.

“With nearly 80 per cent of young people saying they have experienced a harm while browsing online, regulating this space is not just logical but necessary,” she added.

“Ofcom will have teeth when it comes to holding tech companies to account.”

She said the Government will now “step in” in cases where firms fail to accept responsibility, such as in the case of teenager Molly Russell, who took her life after viewing self-harm content online.

On Wednesday, the Government published its first response to a consultation around its online harms White Paper which was released last year.

The White Paper proposed stricter regulation for online companies, including large fines and personal liability for executives of firms found to be in breach of a statutory duty of care.

However, the Government did not set out potential enforcement powers in its first response and will instead publish those details in its full response, due in the spring.

Tory MP Julian Knight, chairman-elect of the Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Committee, said the punishments must be robust and include the threat of prison sentences.

“The regulator must take a muscular approach and be able to enforce change through sanctions that bite,” he said.

“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.”

However, Digital Minister Matt Warman played down the prospect of criminal sanctions, saying that that would be “an extreme option”, but did confirm that the scope of the watchdog’s powers could include heavy fines and the naming and shaming of individual executives.

Jim Killock, executive director of the Open Rights Group, said: “Private companies would be deciding what is legal or illegal, and will always remove more than they need, rather than less.

“Instead, the Government should seek to ensure that companies have sufficient independent scrutiny of their actions. This is known as co-regulation and could be supervised by Ofcom.”

The trade body representing many social media companies - the Internet Association - also said it wanted further debate with the Government on the proposals.

The group, which represents internet firms including Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Twitter, said several “issues of concern” remained, including the potential punishments for not removing content which could be considered harmful but is not illegal.

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