Ofcom to take charge as Online Harms Regulator

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18 February, 2020

Stephen McArdle
Partner, Head of Commercial Litigation

The Government has published more detailed plans to make the Office of Communications (Ofcom) the internet watchdog in light of increasing concerns about 'online harms' including cyber bullying, exploitation, terrorism, violence and illegal and damaging content.

Online Harms Regulator

Last year, the Government carried out an 'online harms' consultation which received over 2,500 replies following which it recommended imposing a new duty of care on online providers in order to better protect consumers from harmful online content and make the internet a safer place. This has become an increasingly high profile issue, especially with the ever growing amount of cloud data and uploaded information stored online.

The Government has proposed widening Ofcom's role to encompass the internet by making it the new Online Harms Regulator. Ofcom is well placed to take on the challenge of regulating online harms due to their current expertise in regulating the broadcasting and telecommunications sectors.

What will be the role of Ofcom?

The plans are that Ofcom will be responsible for protecting users' rights online, including:

  • Safeguarding free speech;
  • Defending the role of the press;
  • Promoting tech innovation;
  • Dealing with complaints and
  • Ensuring businesses do not face disproportionate burdens.

Whilst social media firms have been taking the issue of online harms seriously, by removing harmful data manually or through the use of algorithms, it is widely accepted that more needs to be done to hold those platforms to account and support those affected by online harms.

It is proposed that Ofcom will be responsible for holding companies to account if they do not tackle various internet harms. Further, Ofcom will get new powers to carry out these extended responsibilities, including ensuring that online companies have adequate systems and processes in place to fulfil the duty of care to keep consumers safe online.

What will be the focus of regulation?

Companies that facilitate the sharing of user-generated content will be the main focus in regulating online harms. This includes social media websites which permit the posting of comments, images and videos.

There is no doubt that these are ambitious plans and the task of tackling 'online harms' with be considerable. It will be interesting to see how the Government proposes to implement these plans with the powers it will give Ofcom. More detail is expected in the Government's full response on the matter due in Spring 2020.

In the meantime, Ofcom's interim Chief Executive, Jonathan Oxley, has responded to the government's proposals by stating:

"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."

For more information contact Stephen McArdle in our Business Dispute Resolution department via email or phone on 0333 207 1142. Alternatively send any question through to Forbes Solicitors via our online Contact Form.

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