New online safety law may disappoint public without ‘tangible’ change, say MPs

21 February 2024, 09:24

A woman using a laptop computer
Technology Stock. Picture: PA

Full implementation of the new rules has been delayed until 2026.

Confidence in Britain’s new online safety regime could be undermined by a lack of “tangible” improvement, MPs have warned.

Communications regulator Ofcom has been given the job of implementing the regime introduced by last year’s Online Safety Act, which requires providers of online services to minimise the extent of illegal and harmful content.

But in a report published on Wednesday, the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee said full implementation of the new rules had been delayed by a year, while the way Ofcom will handle complaints risks leaving the public “disappointed”.

The report said: “As the regulatory regime will not be fully implemented until 2026, there is a risk that public confidence in the regime will be undermined if it does not quickly bring about tangible changes to people’s online experience.”

Under the new regime, Ofcom will be unable to act on individual complaints and can only step in when there are “systemic concerns” about a provider, nor does it have a mechanism for telling complainants whether their concerns have contributed to any action.

Committee chairwoman Dame Meg Hillier said: “Expectations are understandably high for firm guardrails in the hitherto largely unregulated online world.

“We know that around two thirds of UK children and adults say they experienced at least one potential online harm in a month in 2022, according to Ofcom, which is to be commended for how swiftly it has moved to take on its new responsibilities.

“It must now continue to be proactively frank with the public over what the Online Safety Act does and does not empower it to do, lest confidence in the new regime be swiftly undermined.”

The committee said Ofcom was well prepared for its new role, and noted that it had already achieved some success in ensuring a website promoting suicide was blocked for UK users.

But full implementation of the new rules has slipped from 2025 to 2026, while the April 2025 deadline for bringing in parts of the regulations relating to illegal harms and protecting children is considered the “bare minimum” required.

MPs also called for more clarity on how fees levied on industry would work, suggesting Ofcom would not recover its set-up costs until 2033, and asked for more detail on how it would deal with internet providers who failed to engage with the regulator.

With an estimated 100,000 companies subject to regulation, many of which may be small or based overseas, MPs said it may be difficult to contact some providers.

If providers refuse to engage with Ofcom over systemic concerns, the regulator will have the power to levy fines of up to 10% of a company’s global revenue and carry out “business disruption measures”.

Dame Meg added: “No other country has introduced online safety regulation. Ofcom now needs to capitalise on its early progress.

“It must also accelerate its co-ordination with other regulators both at home and overseas, in the recognition that it is at the forefront of a truly global effort to strike the right balance between freedom and safety online.”

An Ofcom spokesperson said: “We welcome this report from the Public Accounts Committee, which recognises the swift start we’ve made in implementing the UK’s new online safety laws.

“We’re on track with our plans, and will carefully consider the Committee’s recommendations as we continue our work to create a safer life online.”

By Press Association

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