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January 16, 2020updated 30 Sep 2022 8:49am

Sky boss calls for urgent online harms legislation while Ofcom eyed as interim digital regulator

By Charlotte Tobitt

Sky’s chief executive has urged the Government to speed up its plans for an online regulator as a bill to grant interim powers to Ofcom was introduced in the House of Lords.

Jeremy Darroch, who has led the British broadcaster since 2007, has written to all MPs asking for their “support in establishing an independent regulator that will finally tackle online harms”.

Writing in the Times, Darroch (pictured) pointed to what he described as the “prolific spread of misinformation, online abuse and fake news” in last month’s general election to make the case for urgent regulation.

He claimed it had shown “the damage that unregulated online platforms are doing to our society”.

The Government published a proposed regulatory framework for tough new online safety laws to be overseen by an independent regulator in April last year.

The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport subsequently ran a consultation on the plans and reassured press groups that the new online regulator would not duplicate the work of existing press regulators.

Setting out his Government’s plans in last month’s Queen’s Speech, Johnson said the responses to the public consultation are still being analysed.

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The Government is also continuing to canvass views from social media companies and other interested parties, but said it “will prepare legislation to implement the final policy in response to the consultation”.

A DCMS spokesperson today declined to say how soon it may be before a draft bill is introduced, but Culture Secretary Nicky Morgan pledged in a speech yesterday to develop a media literacy strategy to be published in the summer, which is expected to come before the online harms legislation.

Johnson plans to precede the online harms bill with interim codes of practice ordering tech companies to clamp down on use of their platforms by terrorists and those engaged in child sexual abuse and exploitation.

Lord Tom McNally’s Online Harms Reduction Regulator (Report) Bill started its journey in the House of Lords on Tuesday.

He has said he prepared the bill “to keep up a momentum I fear may be lost and to provide a platform for wider public debate”.

The bill would make Ofcom, which already regulates the UK’s broadcast media, effectively an interim online regulator tasked with preparing for the introduction of a statutory duty of care obligation for online platforms.

Ofcom would have to prepare a report with recommendations on how this should be done, and the Government would be forced to produce its draft bill within a year from the publication of this report.

Lord McNally added: “Along with colleagues in all parties I have supported the Government’s intention to legislate to protect against internet harm.

“However the Government’s commitment to develop safer internet legislation in the Queen’s Speech, though welcome, did not go far enough. The timetable seems to have slipped and there was no mention of the draft bill that we need to ensure that the details are right.”

The bill also set out the proposed scope of the online regulator, including dangers to young people, hatred on the grounds of race, religion, sex or sexual orientation, and threats that “impede or prejudice the integrity and probity of the electoral process”.

Darroch said Lord McNally was “right to inject some urgency”, but added that the Government should follow suit with its own bill “as a matter of urgency”.

The Sky boss noted that broadcasters and internet service providers are “subject to regulatory frameworks that set standards and prevent harm to consumers and society” – unlike social media platforms.

“The Government has already committed to act in manifestos in 2017 and 2019,” he wrote.

“We have had extensive government consultations on preventing specific online harms and there is clear cross-party and public support for a new regulatory regime that will apply the law online as it is offline.

“Indeed, more than two years have passed since Sky commissioned an independent report into platform accountability and online harms, which proposed a framework with an independent regulator at its heart. Yet we still haven’t seen anything change.”

Picture: Sky

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