The Government is set to give Ofcom the power to regulate social media content, but insists its proposed new laws will contain safeguards for freedom of expression.
The broadcast regulator, which today also appointed a new chief executive, will have its remit extended to ensure platforms protect users from harmful and illegal content, including that of a terrorist and abusive nature.
This new regulation will extend to companies that let users post content through comments, forums or videos, which the Government claimed would be fewer than five per cent of UK businesses.
The Government has published its initial response to last year’s public consultation on the Online Harms White Paper ahead of a full response to come in the spring.
It will then table legislation in Parliament, which is currently being formed.
Culture Secretary Nicky Morgan (pictured) said: “We will give the regulator the powers it needs to lead the fight for an internet that remains vibrant and open but with the protections, accountability and transparency people deserve.”
Home Secretary Priti Patel added: “It is incumbent on tech firms to balance issues of privacy and technological advances with child protection.
“That’s why it is right that we have a strong regulator to ensure social media firms fulfil their vital responsibility to vulnerable users.”
It said the regulations would not stop adults from accessing or posting legal content that some people may find offensive or force companies to remove such posts.
Instead, regulated companies must “explicitly state what content and behaviour is acceptable on their sites in clear and accessible terms and conditions and enforce these effectively, consistently and transparently”.
Ofcom’s role will include “paying due regard to safeguarding free speech, defending the role of the press, promoting tech innovation and ensuring businesses do not face disproportionate burdens,” the Government said.
In a joint statement, Morgan and Patel said: “…freedom of expression, and the role of a free press, is vital to a healthy democracy.
“We will ensure that there are safeguards in the legislation, so companies and the new regulator have a clear responsibility to protect users’ rights online, including freedom of expression and the need to maintain a vibrant and diverse public square.”
The News Media Association, which represents UK national and regional newspapers, noted that both Morgan and her predecessor, Jeremy Wright, have given “clear and unequivocal assurances that journalistic content will not fall within the scope of the new regime, which is designed to crack down on online harms propagated by the tech giants”.
“We expect therefore that the next steps for the Government will include making an explicit exemption on the face of any legislation for news media publishers and their journalism which underpins our democracy,” it said.
Ed Procter, chief operating officer of press regulator Impress, said “further clarity” is needed over how the regulation will affect the comment sections of news websites.
Julian Knight MP, the new chairman of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, said the Government’s plans “fail to demonstrate the urgency that is required”.
“A new regulator must take a muscular approach to enforce change with the clout to disrupt the activities of businesses that fail to comply, and ultimately, the threat of a prison sentence for breaking the law.”
It was also announced today that Dame Melanie Dawes, who is currently Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, will become Ofcom’s new chief executive in early March.
Ofcom chairman Lord Burns said: “The Government’s statement that it is minded to appoint Ofcom as the regulator for online harms is a vote of confidence in Ofcom’s expertise. I know Melanie will do a fantastic job of leading the organisation and maintaining its strengths.
“I look forward to working with her over the months ahead as we prepare for this forthcoming legislation as well as the ongoing tasks of achieving better broadband and mobile coverage and supporting UK broadcasting.”
Lord Burns will step down by the end of the year so a new chairman can be appointed who can see through the changes to Ofcom’s remit over the next few years.
Morgan said he had provided “expert stewardship” and would leave Ofcom in a “strong position”.