Writing in today's Daily Telegraph, Ofcom's Chief Executive Dame Melanie Dawes sets out the first major steps we're taking towards helping people in the UK live a safer life online.
If you are a child in Britain today, you can expect to see in the 22nd century. Your coming years will be shaped by artificial intelligence, with its promised revolutions in science and industry. Your online life will blend seamlessly with the physical world around you, fuelled by changes in technology that are constant and profound.
If you’re a parent, like me, this might seem both exhilarating and unnerving. After all, new opportunities seldom come without risk. The task of our generation is to recognise those risks as they emerge, and take positive steps to tackle them. For Ofcom, that work took a major step forward today.
We are the new online safety regulator, with a remit over the digital services that have made everyone more connected and entertained than ever before. Sometimes, those sites and apps serve up content that is harmful to younger minds. Some of it is illegal, and shouldn’t be served up to children or adults.
So as we take our powers to hold tech firms to account, we cannot waste a moment. Today, at the earliest opportunity, we are setting out how we expect to protect people from illegal harm online.
Children are our first priority, and the risk they face is real. Worrying new Ofcom figures show that most secondary schoolers (60%) have been contacted online in a way that potentially made them feel uncomfortable. Some 30% have received an unwanted friend or follow request. And around one in six have either been sent naked or half-dressed photos, or been asked to share these themselves.
If these unwanted approaches happened so often in the outside world, many of us would hardly want our children to leave the house. Yet somehow, in the online space, they have become almost routine. That cannot continue.
60%of secondary schoolers have been contacted online in a way that potentially made them feel uncomfortable
Under our plans, tech firms will need to take concrete steps to protect people from illegal harm. That starts with measures to protect minors from harmful interactions, such as removing them from friend suggestion lists and blocking strangers’ messages.
We also want to see more automatic detection and removal of child sexual abuse material, and much stronger measures to stop children accessing pornography. And we expect online service to take decisive steps to prevent youngsters from being exposed to dangerous suicide and self-harm content.
For users of all ages, we will focus on deterring online fraud, as well as action to tackle terrorist content.
Importantly, Ofcom is not a censor. We won’t have powers to take content down. Instead, our job is to tackle the root causes of harm by setting new standards and requiring firms to design their services with safety in mind. We’ll make sure our rules are practical and take full account of people’s privacy – as well as free expression, the lifeblood of discussion online.
This is a big job. It won’t be quick or easy to achieve. The technical detail must be right; our draft regulations today comprise 1,000 pages. And we cannot do this alone. Protecting people from online risk will demand a broad coalition of those who care.
"We’ll make sure our rules are practical and take full account of people’s privacy – as well as free expression"
So today we are consulting with experts, industry and the public on the approach we plan to take. We’re setting out how we assess online risk, how companies should measure and reduce it, and how we’ll enforce against those who fall short. Parliament will then review our industry codes of practice next year, before they come into force.
We are undaunted by the scale of the challenge, and inspired by its urgency. Ofcom has spent three years preparing for our new role. We have trained and hired expert teams with experience across the online sector – so our regulation will be workable and adaptable to change.
Of course, we cannot solve the internet’s every ill. Peril is part of human life. We cannot shield young people from all sources of jeopardy, and we shouldn’t try. But nor should we tolerate a degree of online risk to our children that we would never accept in their physical lives. Regulation is here, and Ofcom is ready to make a difference.