Jonathan Rose: Regulation is here, and Ofcom will work for everyone’s online safety
Today, we’re taking our first major step as the UK's new online safety regulator, so that tech firms deal with content that is illegal and shouldn’t be served up to children or adults.
At this earliest opportunity, we have opened our first consultation with experts, industry and the public, setting out how online platforms can comply with their new duties.
It is worth stating clearly from the outset - Ofcom won’t have powers to take content down. We are not a censor. Our job is to tackle the root causes of harm by setting new standards and requiring firms to design their services with safety in mind.
We’ll make sure our rules are practical and take full account of people’s privacy – as well as freedom of expression.
First up are our draft codes for protecting UK online users from illegal harm. We are setting out how we assess online risk, how companies should measure and reduce it, and how we’ll take action against those who fall short. Parliament will then review our industry codes of practice next year, before they come into force.
Children are our first priority. Our research shows 62% of Northern Ireland children aged between three and 17 have their own mobile phones and 71% of them use videosharing platforms, 65% view live streamed content, and 80% use messaging sites and apps. Sixty-nine per cent are on social media.
Worryingly, more than a third (35%) of those aged eight to 17 who go online here have seen something they felt was “worrying or nasty”.
Under our plans, online platforms and services will need to take steps to protect people from illegal harm, with additional measures to protect minors from harmful interactions.
We want to see automatic detection and removal of child sexual abuse material, and much stronger measures to stop children accessing pornography. And we expect online services to stop recommending dangerous suicide and self-harm content to children.
For users of all ages, we will focus on helping to prevent online fraud, as well as taking action to tackle terrorist content.
Ofcom has spent three years preparing for our new role. We have trained and hired expert teams with experience across the online sectors – so our regulation will be workable and adaptable to change.
Here in Northern Ireland we have welcomed several new colleagues working in Ofcom’s UK-wide online safety team, including a Northern Ireland-specific online safety lead. I am really pleased to see Ofcom’s presence here grow, particularly in this important area.
There is already great work taking place by several organisations whose mission every day is to safeguard children and young people. We have engaged with them throughout our preparations and are so grateful for their input and sharing of expertise.
As well as engaging with statutory and voluntary safeguarding organisations we have also spent time talking and listening to Northern Ireland’s financial sector, hearing first-hand about the prevalence of online fraud and scams, and their efforts to protect customers.
While online safety is a matter reserved for Westminster, the views of local elected representatives (and by extension their constituents) are extremely important, so we have taken time to engage with MLAs about our regulatory approach and finding out what their priorities are for reducing online harm.
We recognise the importance of working in harmony with our colleagues in Europe who are implementing the Digital Services Act (DSA) to make sure companies who come under both regimes do not face conflicting standards or unworkable rules which might hamper investment and innovation, as well as compliance.
In this area we are building on our existing working relationship with Coimisiún na Meán (Media Commission), which is in the process of establishing a regulatory framework for online safety in the Republic of Ireland.
We cannot solve every problem on the internet. But we will no longer tolerate a degree of online risk to our children that we would never accept in their physical lives. Regulation is here, and Ofcom has started the process of helping to achieve a safer life online for everyone.
Jonathan Rose is Ofcom’s Northern Ireland director