Online safety regulation: Ofcom's roadmap and call for evidence

posted on 28 July, 2022   (public)

Ofcom's plan to regulate online safety on platforms: a systemic risk-based approach

On 6 July 2022, Ofcom released its 'Roadmap to regulation', which provides an overview of how the media regulator plans to implement the forthcoming Online Safety Bill. The Online Safety Bill - still under Parliamentary process - introduces new rules and a duty of care for online services which host user-generated content and for search engines, in order to tackle online harms. This roadmap does not intend to provide guidance to providers but presents how Ofcom will deal with its new duties assigned by the Online Safety Bill.

The Online Safety Bill requests online services providers to take a comprehensive, proactive approach to managing risk of online harm, and to ensure that risks to the safety of users are taken into account when designing the product and services. Moreover, services falling within special categories shall comply with additional duties, like for instance, in-depth transparency reports.

The aim is to minimise harm, not to entirely eradicate it

Based on the regulator's experience with Video Sharing-Platforms' regulation (see the previous  Guidances on VSP and Ofcom's Plan and Approach to the VSP rules), Ofcom will not apply a content-based regulation but will focus on the adequacy of services’ systems and processes to protect users (safety by design).

Ofcom intends to regulate online actors under the prism of a risk-based 'supervisory' approach: a differentiated, flexible and proportionate approach, taking into account, notably, the technical feasibility and evolution, the reach of the service, the type of service and functionalities (user-to-user/search engine/others), and the audience targeted (children). Priority will then be on high-risk or high-impact services.

Developing such practice of risk management in online services is a long-term project and Ofcom plans therefore to complement its cross-cutting focus on risk management with early actions to address the most significant online harms.

To do so, Ofcom will build on its strong relationship with industry, civil society, and other public bodies, in the UK and beyond, to develop targeted responses to harm, depending on the nature of the harm in question.

Ofcom's planned timeline (when its powers come into force - probably two months after the Bill passes into law):

-  Publication of draft guidance for risk assessments and Codes of Practice covering illegal content
- After the publication of the secondary legislation, publication of draft Codes and guidance on protection of children, and protection of adults from legal harms, as well as a sector risk assessment related to legal harms to children and adults.

This roadmap will evolve depending on the potential legislative updates. 

See the implementation plan for a detailed roadmap of the actions planned by Ofcom.

Alongside the Roadmap, Ofcom has also published a call for evidence to collect 'information about the assessment of the risk of harm from illegal content, about options for mitigating online harms, child access assessments and transparency requirements'. Providers but also regulators, academics, civil society organisations, consumer representatives and other stakeholders are invited to participate in this call for evidence. Responses are expected by 5pm on 13 September 2022.

General information on the Online Safety Bill: 

Scope: all services 'where users may encounter content (such as messages, images, videos and comments) that has been generated, uploaded or shared by other users' that have links with the UK, regardless of where the entity providing the service is based or registered.

Enforcement powers for the regulator: request of information, heavy fines, possibility to seek a court order imposing business disruption measures (non-exhaustive list).

Financial resources: contributions from regulated services - 'Fees will be paid by those services who exceed a certain threshold of qualifying worldwide revenue (QWR)'.

Further EPRA Background: Tackling online harms through systemic regulation? This approach was presented and discussed among EPRA members on 29 June 2022 - See the presentation 'A modern systems approach to regulating online hate speech' by Lorna Woods and William Perrin during the EPRA VSPs and regulation workshop n°3 (summary of the workshop available here). Lorna Woods and William Perrin's work has inspired the Online Safety Bill in the UK.