Ofcom handed new powers to regulate social media content

Government has opted not to create new authority.

Social media: mostly allowed to self-regulate at present
Social media: mostly allowed to self-regulate at present

Ofcom has been given new powers to regulate social media over harmful online content, the government has announced.

At the same time, Ofcom has announced that Melanie Dawes, a senior civil servant, will take up the reins as chief executive in early March. Dawes has been permanent secretary at the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government since 2015.

The government has confirmed plans for a new legal duty of care for the likes of Facebook, its sister brand Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat, which have been mostly allowed to self-regulate the content their users publish.

The move follows the publication of last year’s Online Harms White Paper, a piece of draft legislation that would mark a watershed moment in how national governments try to police user-generated content on online platforms.

In joint statement by home secretary Priti Patel and culture secretary Nicky Morgan, the duo said Ofcom’s focus on the communications sector means it already has relationships with many of the major players in the online arena.

Patel and Morgan added: "We judge that such a role is best served by an existing regulator with a proven track record of experience, expertise and credibility. We think that the best fit for this role is Ofcom, both in terms of policy alignment and organisational experience – for instance, in their existing work, Ofcom already takes the risk-based approach that we expect the online harms regulator will need to employ."

Germany has since 2018 had the NetzDG law, which compels social platforms with more than two million German users to review and remove illegal content within 24 hours of it being posted, while last year Australia created criminal and financial penalties for social media companies in the Sharing of Abhorrent Violent Material Act.

The UK government had to decide whether to hand these regulatory duties to Ofcom, an experienced watchdog with enforcement powers and expertise, or a new body that could have a more specialist focus. Ofcom already oversees broadcast TV (including the BBC) as well as postal communications.

Ed Vaizey, the UK's longest-serving culture minister and former MP, told Campaign last year that he had become convinced the government should create a new regulator instead of giving the job to Ofcom.

He explained: "I started thinking Ofcom is the obvious place, where a lot of the expertise resides… but I'm more open now to the idea of a new regulator and allowing it to establish itself and make its mistakes."

However, an influential committee of lords argued last year that Ofcom should be given the power to regulate big tech, which they criticised for having "unacceptably opaque and slow" moderation procedures.

Instagram was heavily criticised last year for not taking enough action against content that promoted suicide, following the death of teenager Molly Russell.

Ofcom itself had already in 2018 floated the idea of policing Google and Facebook in particular over the proliferation of fake news and other dangerous material on their platforms. 

Reacting to the government's decision today, Facebook's head of UK public policy Rebecca Stimson said: "Facebook has long called for new regulations to set high standards across the internet. New rules are needed so that we have a more common approach across platforms and private companies aren’t making so many important decisions alone. This is a complex challenge as any new rules need to protect people from harm without undermining freedom of expression or the incredible benefits the internet has brought."