The Government has published its long-awaited response to its Online Harms consultation. Confirming the intention to impose a duty of care to keep users safe online, the Secretary of State told Parliament online platforms “will no longer be able to mark their own homework”.
Ofcom has been confirmed as the new online harms regulator and will be given robust enforcement tools to tackle non-compliance, including the power to issue eye-watering fines of up to £18 million or 10% of global annual turnover (whichever is higher). For the most egregious breaches, the regulator will also be able to disrupt a company’s UK business activities in the UK, including blocking online access. In what appears to be a victory for concern about deterring big tech investment in the UK in the post-Corona / post-Brexit world, the proposals fail to include immediate measures for prosecuting senior executives for breach of the duty of care. However, the Government warned it would introduce criminal sanctions if necessary.
The new regulatory framework will apply to public communication channels and services where users expect a greater degree of privacy – for example, online instant messaging services and closed social media groups. In a victory for freedom of expression, though, content published by a news organisations on their own sites will not be within regulatory scope and users’ comments will also be exempt.
Alongside its response, the Government has published two interim codes of practice. The codes provide voluntary guidance for companies to help them mitigate the range of risks from online terrorist content and activity and child sexual exploitation and abuse, ahead of the online harms regulator becoming operational.
The Government has committed to having the Online Safety Bill, which will give effect to the proposed regulatory framework, ready by 2021.