Safety concept online

Ofcom granted ‘rights to keep big tech in check’ via Online Safety Bill

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The Online Safety Bill will ‘broadly’ equip Ofcom with what it needs to regulate tech firms, the watchdog’s chief executive has said.

Ofcom CEO Dame Melanie Dawes acknowledged that keeping social networks in check will be “really challenging” and suggested some areas of the proposed laws go tougher.

The Online Safety Bill, of which a long-delayed draft was published in May, is intended to make tech firms accountable for harmful third-party content hosted on their platforms, ranging from illegal content such as terrorist propaganda to abusive content that falls below the threshold of criminality, such as bullying of minors. It will be enforced by Ofcom, which could block access to their sites; fine them either up to 10 per cent of annual turnover or £18m (whichever is higher); and hold senior managers criminally liable for failures of duty of care.

Speaking on the Online Safety Bill during its committee stage, Dawes said the bill would “broadly” equip Ofcom with what it needs to regulate tech giants, the watchdog’s boss has said.

“Do we feel we have what we need to act and act quickly when we need to? The answer is broadly yes,” Dawes told MPs and peers. “We have clear safety duties and they’re well written. We have a few suggestions on how they could be made even more specific in a couple of places. This is a really challenging task, there’s no question about that, but we do think that the bill gives us broadly the right overall things that we need.”

She said that a difficult job lay ahead as online platforms have gone unregulated for so long. She told the committee that Facebook, Google, and other companies would build powerful legal teams to resist regulation, may overwhelm Ofcom, and may try to circumvent regulation. The 5Rights Foundation, which supports stronger online regulation, has warned that these companies could make use of numerous loopholes in the legislation and remodel themselves to elude the remit of the regulation rather than taking on the burden of making their services safer.

Dawes also warned that the UK’s enforcement could be at a disadvantage to similar plans by the EU.

She recommended the bill should require tech firms to work with external researchers: “There’s an opportunity for them actually, for the regulator, to set some terms for that and accredited researchers.”

Dawes explained there is a slight risk in this: “I think the EU is going to make that a requirement in their bill, and therefore British research groups don’t get the same potential actually [...] that will disadvantage the UK if we don’t have the same powers that are going to be coming in the EU.”

She also expressed concern about calls for fraud to be covered by the bill, saying she is “a little worried about focus if we expand it too far”.

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