Preparing for our new online safety duties
We’re 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 we haven’t previously regulated.
One of the things we’re thinking about is how our existing approaches to regulation will need to be adapted to meet the new challenges ahead.
Here Camilla Bustani, director, international strategy at Ofcom, gives her insight into our preparations for taking on new powers in this area.
Ofcom already has a wide remit
We 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 we take isn’t necessarily driven by the sector we are looking at – there’s not a ‘postal model’ or a ‘broadcasting model’, for example. Instead, we take an approach based on the regulatory challenge that needs resolving.
We can be flexible in the new approach we take to online safety. For example, we might prescribe a set of rules which set out how regulated firms should act, and monitor their compliance with those. Or, we 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. We 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 our 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 us.
How we're preparing for online safety
We 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.
We know we will need to be nimble and responsive in our 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 we, and the platforms we regulate, will need to learn on the job about what works and what doesn’t.
We also know we can’t do this on our own. The platforms and companies themselves have just as much of a part to play in this as we do.
This isn’t a question of top-down enforcement from the outset. We’ll step in where and when we need to, but we want the platforms themselves to play a leading role in protecting their audiences. We know this is something they already work on; and we’ll help them to build on this for the future.
In order to achieve this, we will need greater transparency from these companies and platforms – both for us 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 us to make sure our 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. We might be leading the way and taking the first steps in this area, but we want other nations to join us on this journey. Without international collaboration any regulatory regime will be far less effective.
We’re also not in the business of censoring debate or stifling freedom of expression. We’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. We have a track record of allowing free speech in our regulation of TV and radio, and we are committed to continuing this in our online work, intervening only when we consider it to be absolutely necessary.
Our future role in this area is significant in scale and scope. It’s daunting, but we’re undaunted, and looking forward to tackling these challenges together.
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