Addressing Harmful Content Online: Ofcom's contribution to the online regulation debate

posted on 26 September, 2018   (public)

Broadcasting content frameworks cannot be transferred wholesale to the online world even though principles from broadcasting regulation could be relevant

On 18 September 2018, Ofcom published a discussion document examining the area of harmful online content.  Intended as a contribution to the online regulation debate, rather than an explicit call for new regulation, it draws on the key lessons from the regulation of content standards – for broadcast and on-demand video services – and the insights that these might provide to policy makers into the principles that could underpin any new models for addressing harmful online content. The document also sets out Ofcom’s commitment to working with fellow regulators in trying to find multilateral solutions and their intention to hold a conference to support that in 2019.

  • One key lesson drawn from Ofcom’s experience from the regulation of content standards is that existing frameworks could not be transferred wholesale to the online world. The reports also identifies some key challenges involved in transposing experiences from broadcasting regulation into online, such as scale, variety of content types, voices and opinions, role in content creation, service variety and innovation and multinational nature of online platform operators. In addition, audience expectations and context differ between broadcasting and online.
  • However, certain principles from broadcasting regulation could be relevant as policymakers consider issues around online protection, such as: Protection and assurance against harmful content and conduct, Upholding freedom of expressionAdaptability over time, Transparency (both in terms of which services are regulated and of the rules underpinning the regulatory regime), Enforcement (against bad behaviour, through proportionate and meaningful sanctions), Independence (of decision-making that builds credibility and public trust).

Alongside the discussion paper, Ofcom also published joint research with the Information Commissioner’s Office, the UK Data Protection regulator, on people’s perception, understanding and experience of online harm:

  • The survey of 1,686 adult internet users finds that 79% have concerns about aspects of going online,
  • 45% have experienced some form of online harm.
  • The study shows that protection of children is a primary concern, and reveals mixed levels of understanding around what types of media are regulated.

Background: There is an ongoing debate in the UK on addressing harmful content online. The Government has announced its intention to legislate to improve online safety; a White Paper is expected in winter 2018. In July the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Committee of the House of Commons published an interim report on disinformation and ‘fake news’, recommending that the Government " uses the rules given to Ofcom under the Communications Act to set and enforce contents standards for television and radio broadcasters, [...] as a basis for setting standards for online content. ”

Source: Ofcom Website