Ofcom preparing for new online safety duties

Nov 23rd '21

Ofcom are looking forward to taking on greater responsibilities for helping people lead a safer life online, and are starting to prepare for taking on this new role and developing relationships with a new set of companies that they haven’t previously regulated.


One of the things they’re thinking about is how existing approaches to regulation will need to be adapted to meet the new challenges ahead.


Ofcom already has a wide remit

Ofcom oversee a range of very different parts of what constitutes ’communications’ – this includes telecoms, TV and radio services, postal services and how the radio spectrum is used.


Within each of those areas, the regulatory approach they take isn’t necessarily driven by the sector they’re looking at – there’s not a ‘postal model’ or a ‘broadcasting model’, for example. Instead, they take an approach based on the regulatory challenge that needs resolving.


Ofcom can be flexible in the new approach to online safety. For example, they might prescribe a set of rules which set out how regulated firms should act, and monitor their compliance with those. Or, they might publish information so users of these services can make their own minds up and vote with their feet, encouraging firms to respond to consumer pressure. Ofcom might establish certain high-level principles and guidance and publish best practice for the industry, to which service providers would be encouraged to sign up.


This is Ofcom’s toolkit when it comes to this new regulatory responsibility. It ranges from very prescriptive models to very light-touch models where industry works – either on an individual or collaborative basis – to set the bar for themselves, based on guidance from them.


How are Ofcom preparing for online safety

Ofcom recognise that the business models of the online platforms are varied, complex and fast changing. At the same time, these companies were, broadly speaking, born in, and have grown up, fairly free of the kind of regulation they will soon face. A huge amount of what goes on under their bonnets of these organisations has never been looked at closely, and many of these companies have limited or no experience of being regulated.


Ofcom know they will need to be nimble and responsive in approach to regulation, given the ever-innovating nature of these platforms – alongside the evolving expectations and needs of their audiences. The regulatory regime will need to be iterative. To an extent Ofcom, and the platforms they regulate, will need to learn on the job about what works and what doesn’t.


Working together

Ofcom also know they can’t do this on their own. The platforms and companies themselves have just as much of a part to play in this as Ofcom do.


This isn’t a question of top-down enforcement from the outset. Ofcom will step in where and when they need to, but want the platforms themselves to play a leading role in protecting their audiences. Ofcom know this is something they already work on; and will help them to build on this for the future.


In order to achieve this, Ofcom will need greater transparency from these companies and platforms – both for them as a regulator, but also for their audiences. This will help to empower users to make informed decisions about their use of online services, and will help Ofcom to make sure their work in this areas is targeted, robust, proportionate, and effective.


Furthermore, an international issue needs an international solution. These platforms, and their audiences, are global. So, any regulation needs to operate without borders. Ofcom might be leading the way and taking the first steps in this area, but they want other nations to join on this journey. Without international collaboration any regulatory regime will be far less effective.


Ofcom are also not in the business of censoring debate or stifling freedom of expression. They’re determined to allow these important pillars to remain; they are vital to the success of the platforms and to the people who use them. Ofcom have a track record of allowing free speech in their regulation of TV and radio, and are committed to continuing this in their online work, intervening only when they consider it to be absolutely necessary.


Ofcom’s  future role in this area is significant in scale and scope. It’s daunting, but they’re undaunted, and looking forward to tackling these challenges together.


Source: Ofcom


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