The time has come for strong, external oversight of social media companies
Our Chief Executive, Melanie Dawes, explains why we can’t rely on tech media companies responding to users’ outrage when serious harm takes place. Instead, we need a clear set of rules.
Three years before she composed the first modern algorithm, Ada Lovelace pondered the potential for machines to master games like chess and solitaire. If a computer could achieve such a feat, where might this lead?
“I see nothing but vague and cloudy uncertainty”, she confessed, “yet I discern a very bright light a good way further on”.
For all her visionary brilliance in 1840, not even Lovelace could foresee algorithms becoming the hand that guides people’s travel, shopping and entertainment. More than that, they define our modern experience of being online, fuelling what we see in search results and on social media.
Algorithms have personalised the internet, created new business opportunities, and given ordinary people the power to speak to large audiences. Through their ability to target online advertising, they have also fuelled the rapid rise of trillion-dollar tech giants.
But too often, companies appear to have prioritised growth over the safety of their users. By designing their services to maximise reach, they may have inadvertently promoted harmful content: bullying or harassment, hate speech, self-harm. They may not be quick enough to tackle terrorism or sexual abuse.
Today, when people spend a quarter of their waking day connected, safety matters as much online as it always has in the home, school or workplace. Six in ten connected adults – and eight in ten older children – have had at least one harmful experience online in the past year. Most people support tighter rules.
But at the moment, search and social media sites can choose whether to heed those concerns. If these companies are regulated at all, it is only by outrage. The time has come for strong, external oversight.
So the draft Online Safety Bill, currently being scrutinised by Parliament, is an important piece of law. It means tech firms will have new duties of care to their users, which Ofcom will enforce. We plan to build on our track record of upholding broadcast standards, supporting a range of views and promoting innovation.
Equally, everyone should understand what the new laws will not mean. Ofcom will not be regulating or moderating individual pieces of online content. The Government recognises – and we agree – that the sheer volume would make that impractical.
We won’t act as a censor, prevent robust debate or trample over users’ rights. Free speech is the lifeblood of the internet. It is a foundation of democratic society, at the heart of public life, and a value that Ofcom holds dear.
Instead, our job will be to lift the ‘vague and cloudy uncertainty’ that hovers over search and social media.
As a user, you have no idea how these platforms really work. Why do you see the content you see? What are they doing to protect your children from abuse or harassment? When they design their services, is safety their first priority or just a secondary thought?
When we regulate online safety, Ofcom will demand answers to these questions. We will require companies to assess risk with the user’s perspective in mind. They will need to explain what they are doing to minimise, and quickly remove, illegal content – and to protect children from harm.
We will hold companies to account on how they use algorithms, address complaints and ensure a safe experience for children. The biggest services must also explain how they protect journalistic and democratic content. Today, these decisions are being made behind companies’ doors, with no visibility or accountability.
Ofcom will set codes of practice, and report publicly on platforms’ performance. If we find companies fail in their duties of care, we can levy fines or audit their work.
And as other countries follow with similar laws, we will work closely with our international counterparts. When I met tech leaders from around the world at Lisbon’s Web Summit this month, I saw a collective determination to find global solutions to these challenges.
Ofcom is gearing up for the job, acquiring new skills in areas like data and technology. And we have opened a new technology hub in Manchester to help us attract skills and expertise from across the country and beyond.
We will be ready; and I believe the new laws will make a genuine difference. By shining that very bright light on immensely powerful companies, we can ensure they take proper care of their users and create a safer life online for everyone.
Latest News from
Our latest report on Openreach’s independence08/12/2021 14:05:00
Ofcom has today published its annual monitoring report on the progress towards delivering a more independent Openreach.
‘Getting off mute’ – Ofcom’s approach to online literacy07/12/2021 09:20:00
Yih-Choung Teh, Ofcom's Group Director for Strategy, introduces our new approach to promoting online media literacy in the UK.
Ofcom recognised for our social mobility commitments03/12/2021 10:15:00
Last week Ofcom improved our placing on the Social Mobility Index, which recognises employers that create opportunities for people from different social backgrounds.
Ofcom fines O2 £150,000 for providing inaccurate and incomplete information02/12/2021 13:15:00
Ofcom yesterday fined O2 £150,000 for failing to provide accurate and complete information to us when we were investigating whether it had overcharged its customers.
Making sure you’re on the best deal for you is vital01/12/2021 12:25:00
Ofcom’s Director of Telecoms Consumer Protection, Cristina Luna-Esteban, explains why making sure you’re on the best phone or broadband deal for you has perhaps never been more important – and how we’ve made it easier to do so.
Telecoms customers saving millions as Ofcom rules bed in30/11/2021 15:10:00
More broadband and mobile customers are shopping around and signing up to better deals – and saving themselves millions of pounds – following Ofcom rule changes.
BBC Three can return as TV channel26/11/2021 13:15:00
BBC Three is set to return to TV screens for the first time in six years, after Ofcom yesterday approved its relaunch as a broadcast television channel.
Preparing for our new online safety duties23/11/2021 13:10:00
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.