Government expands Ofcom’s role to combat ‘Online Harms’

Online harms can take a variety of forms, privacy violations being among the most notorious. Regardless of how we categorise negative internet user experiences, we know from a recent Ofcom study that 61% of adults and 79% of 12-15 year olds have reported at least one potentially harmful online experience in the last 12 months.

As part of the government’s response to public consultation on the Online Harms White Paper, the DCMS announced on the 12th February that the UK’s telecoms and broadcasting regulator will also be the new online harms regulator. The Home Office and DCMS have been working together with Barnardo’s charity to provide greater protection for vulnerable internet users, particularly children, building upon growing institutional and regulatory oversight of digital services.

Unlike the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which has far-reaching purviews, the regulation will likely only apply to fewer than 5% of UK business, as Ofcom will only be responsible for monitoring organisations that host user-generated content (comments, forums etc.).

But from a data protection perspective, it’s interesting to see how GDPR terminology and values have shaped this initiative – consider, for instance, former secretary of state Nicky Morgan’s statement on the government’s response to the white paper:

“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.”

We can expect to see the official anointing of the new Ofcom coming into force under Nicky Morgan’s recent successor, Oliver Dowden.

In the meantime, the Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham, head of the UK’s enforcer for GDPR, has welcomed this expanded Ofcom as “an important step forward in addressing people’s growing mistrust of social media and online services.”

She continues, in an ICO press release on the heels of the DCMS announcement, “the scales are falling from our eyes as we begin to question who has control over what we see and how our personal data is used.”

If you have any questions about data protection, please contact us via email or call 01787 277742.

Harry Smithson, 14th February 2020