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Ofcom set to become social media police

A response to the Online Harms white paper is finally here

It looks like the government is finally ready to respond to last year’s Online Harms white paper, which outlined the problems of free-for-all social media platforms including the promotion of self-harm, child abuse and terrorism.

And it certainly is, uh, ambitious. Ofcom, which is currently in charge of policing radio and broadcast media, is apparently going to be responsible both for ensuring illegal content is taken down quickly, and then punishing companies that don’t respond in a timely manner. Said punishments could be anything from fines to prison sentences.

While superficially there are similarities between the moderation of TV and YouTube, say, the practicalities are hugely different. For starters, there’s a finite number of channels on television, while YouTube gets 82 years’ worth of content uploaded every single day.

And that’s just one platform. While it’s not clear what sites will be suddenly under Ofcom’s remit, as a minimum you’re looking at Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. But actually it could be a lot more than this: the white paper was remarkably vague, describing any website that “allows users to share or discover user-generated content, or interact with each other online.” By that definition, half of the internet could be covered.

And that’s not even getting into the difficulties of policing global companies in a single country, where the ability to see filtered content is just a VPN away.

Still, the government is bullish, as you might expect given its new 80-seat majority. “There are many platforms who ideally would not have wanted regulation, but I think that’s changing,” Digital Secretary Baroness Nicky Morgan told the BBC. “I think they understand now that actually regulation is coming.”

While it might seem odd that the government is chasing a hard-to-work digital policy just months after it had to accept defeat on its doomed porn block plans, the ambition has been welcomed in some circles. TechUK, which represents some 850 tech companies, said it’s “pleased to see continued progress being made” in the area of online harms.

“The evolution in thinking demonstrates a commitment from government to building a framework that is effective and proportionate – protecting and empowering users whilst ensuring the UK remains pro-innovation and investment,” said Vinous Ali, TechUK’s associate director of policy.;

But despite this positivity, Ali was keen to highlight the very clear challenges ahead for a body whose remit is about to massively expand. “Ofcom’s experience makes it an appropriate voice in this debate but if it is to take on this new role, vastly expanding on its current remit, it must be given the appropriate resources and be upskilled to meet the challenge ahead.

“Whilst the direction of travel is encouraging, much more work is needed to deliver clarity on questions of scope, process, legal but harmful content and enforcement.”

The plans are due to be outlined in full later this week, so it won’t be long before we can get a good idea of how workable these plans will be in practice.

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