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UK government to give Ofcom power to police what is posted on the internet

Andrew Griffin
Wednesday 12 February 2020 10:54 GMT
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UK government to give Ofcom power to police what is posted on the internet

The UK government will give Ofcom new regulatory powers to police what is posted on the internet, it has said. The decision was made as part of a new “online harms“ plan that ministers say will protect people as they use the internet.

However, critics say the addition of new rules and regulations could stifle free speech and give the government unprecedented powers to decide what is posted and available on the internet. Campaign group Big Brother Watch has called the plans “dangerous and wrong” and suggested they are “a direct attack on the fundamental right to freedom of expression”.

Ofcom will have the power to enforce a “duty of care” on companies such as Facebook and Twitter “to protect users from harmful and illegal terrorist and child-abuse content”. It will be able to punish companies that fail in that duty.

Previous proposals have suggested allowing the regulator to issue fines against platforms and websites that it judges to have failed to protect users from seeing harmful videos such as those depicting violence or child abuse.

The government said the regulator would have responsibility for making sure that online companies have the systems and processes in place to fulfil the duty of care to keep people using their platforms safe.

The new update comes in the wake of the online-harms white paper, which set out a variety of suggestions for how the government could look to protect people online. Since then, the government has been consulting with tech firms, charities and other groups in an attempt to refine those suggestions.

In the latest announcement, ministers said that the new regulation would be introduced with a view to protecting free speech.

“Freedom of expression, and the role of a free press, is vital to a healthy democracy,” wrote the culture secretary, Dame Nicky Morgan, and the home secretary, Priti Patel. “We will ensure that there are safeguards in the legislation, so companies and the new regulator have a clear responsibility to protect users’ rights online, including freedom of expression and the need to maintain a vibrant and diverse public square.”

The government said it had chosen Ofcom as the new regulator because of its history, which has in the past only extended to broadcasting, telecoms and other related industries, and added that the regulator is the “best fit” because it wants one “with a proven track record of experience, expertise and credibility”.

“With Ofcom at the helm of a proportionate and strong regulatory regime, we have an incredible opportunity to lead the world in building a thriving digital economy, driven by groundbreaking technology, that is trusted by and protects everyone in the UK,” Dame Nicky said.

“We will give the regulator the powers it needs to lead the fight for an internet that remains vibrant and open but with the protections, accountability and transparency people deserve.”

Ms Patel said: “While the internet can be used to connect people and drive innovation, we know it can also be a hiding place for criminals, including paedophiles, to cause immense harm.

“It is incumbent on tech firms to balance issues of privacy and technological advances with child protection.

“That’s why it is right that we have a strong regulator to ensure social media firms fulfil their vital responsibility to vulnerable users.”

As the new regulatory plans were unveiled, Ofcom also announced that civil servant Dame Melanie Dawes had been appointed as its new chief executive.

Dame Melanie has been permanent secretary at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government since 2015 and will start in early March.

Ofcom’s chair, Lord Burns, will also step down later this year after the government indicated that it wanted a chair who would be able to implement its online-harms programme in full over the next few years.

Agencies contributed to this report

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