Does Ofcom’s proposal for UK to regulate social media have merit?

19 Sep 2018

Image: Bikeworldtravel/Shutterstock

After a year of data scandals, plans by UK government to regulate technology companies could have legs.

The UK’s telecoms watchdog, Ofcom, has outlined a blueprint for regulating social media platforms including Facebook, Twitter and Google. It proposes that the operations of tech companies can be regulated in the same way as the mobile phone and broadband industry in the UK.

‘This is a standards lottery. If protection matters, and we all believe it does, this cannot be our message to viewers: “Choose your screen, and take your chances”’

The proposed blueprint coincides with research by Ofcom that around eight in 10 adult internet users (79pc) have concerns about aspects of going online, while almost half (45pc) have experienced some form of online harm.

Alongside the research, Ofcom published a discussion document examining the area of harmful internet content. The document, designed to contribute to the debate on how people might be protected from online harm, considers how lessons from broadcasting regulation might help to inform work by policymakers to tackle the issue.

Is this part of a general backlash against tech companies?

Ofcom chief Sharon White is doubling down on regulating how social media companies process complaints.

The tawdry state of affairs in handling complaints and content moderation was highlighted earlier in the summer in an undercover investigation for Channel 4’s Dispatches, which revealed systemic failures at Facebook to remove content flagged as inappropriate or recommended to be removed by users, including graphic images and videos of violent assaults on children. Public concern about what happens online is peaking following scandals such as the Cambridge Analytica affair, rising online bullying, the epidemic of so-called ‘fake news’, and the spread of terrorist content and hate speech.

Crucially, White believes that platforms such as the BBC and ITV are bound by strict rules, but web giants such as Google, YouTube and Facebook are not. Instead, she is proposing the creation of a new regulator to oversee the behaviour of tech giants and how they respond to complaints.

Her assertions come at a time when the UK government itself is considering the regulation of tech companies. It is understood that ministers are working on a detailed policy paper that could force tech companies to take more responsibility over the content that appears on their online platforms.

White told a Royal Television Society conference that the UK currently has a “standards lottery” that allows social media giants to carry on regardless while traditional broadcasters have to toe the line of rigorous rules around protecting audiences, particularly children under 18.

“Without even knowing it, viewers are watching the same content, governed by different regulation in different places, or by none at all. This is a standards lottery. If protection matters, and we all believe it does, this cannot be our message to viewers: ‘Choose your screen, and take your chances.’”

Tech companies do not exist in a vacuum and are becoming increasingly aware of the backlash they face if they don’t get bullying, online misinformation and hate speech under control. Twitter has, for example, taken strident efforts to curb the activities of trolls and limit the disruption of discussion on its platform. But the rising tide of anti-tech sentiment is being expressed in other ways, such as the growing popularity of ad-blocking tools as an expression of distaste at how the online advertising industry’s formats became annoying and intrusive, for example.

In Ireland, plans are being considered for a digital safety commissioner or social media watchdog with powers to make tech firms act faster and more decisively in bullying matters, as well as plans for better data privacy education for minors.

White’s proposal to regulate social media companies might have sounded exotic and over-reaching a year ago. But, after a year of data scandals and the rising tide of bullying, the reality is that her proposals will have more receptive ears than Facebook or Google would like to admit.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years