You wouldn’t blame Ofcom for feeling daunted. The world, or at least the bit of the planet that wants to clean up the internet, is watching the online safety bill and the UK communications regulator has to enforce it. Hearings into the draft bill by a joint committee came to an end last week and if you take a step back and look at what has come out of those sessions since September, it is clear that Ofcom has got a job on its hands.
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Quick primer: the bill covers tech firms that allow users to post their own content or to interact with one another. So that means big fish such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and Snapchat have to obey it but also commercial pornography sites like OnlyFans. Search engines such as Google are also included.
The bill places a duty of care on those companies to protect users from harmful content – at pain of substantial fines levied by Ofcom. The duty of care is split into three parts: preventing the proliferation of illegal content and activity such as child pornography, terrorist material and hate crimes (ie racial abuse); ensuring children are not exposed to harmful or inappropriate content; and, for the big players such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube (described as “category 1” services), ensuring that adults are protected from legal but harmful content. The latter content category is to be defined by the culture secretary, after consultation with Ofcom, and then scrutinised by parliament before being enacted in secondary legislation.
The Ofcom chief executive, Dame Melanie Dawes, had warned of being “overwhelmed” by complaints from social media users and having to deal with the “sheer legal weight” of big tech’s response to the act once it becomes law, which should happen around the end of next year.
The culture secretary, Nadine Dorries, rounded off the hearings with an appearance in which she proposed a number of changes to the legislation. But even the preceding sessions had underlined the complexities and gaps in the bill. It needs to be simpler – yet there is no doubt following Dorries’s appearance that it is going to be bigger.
The committee will publish its report on the bill by 10 December and Dorries has said she will look at the recommendations “very seriously indeed”. Here are some of the changes we can expect, or at least issues that the committee will address in its report, after the hearings.
A permanent joint committee will oversee the act
Dorries said a permanent committee of MPs and peers – modelled on the human rights joint committee – will be set up to conduct “ongoing scrutiny” of the landscape that the act will police and the role of the secretary of state and Ofcom in enforcing the bill. The body could also recommend when the secretary of state deploys secondary powers under the bill, such as giving guidance on how Ofcom should exercise its powers.
There will be criminal sanctions for users and executives
Dorries is definitely gunning for tech …….