Online harms and freedoms
Kevin Bakhurst, Ofcom’s content group director, highlights the importance of freedom of speech in future regulation of content online. A version of this article was originally published in The Times.
“I may not agree with you”, said Oscar Wilde, paraphrasing Evelyn Beatrice Hall’s Voltaire, “but I will defend to the death your right to make an ass of yourself”.
He would surely have enjoyed social media – which has made it easier than ever for people to share views, establish communities, start revolutions or make asses of themselves.
But in the wrong hands, online services have also become a means of promoting hate, harm and fear, leading to a serious debate about how to make them safer.
This month, the Government said it was minded to appoint Ofcom to regulate harmful content online. And while industry and children’s groups welcomed the plans, others had early misgivings.
Some internet users feared Ofcom would soon be ‘policing’ the web, shutting down sites and censoring content. Freedom groups warned of dangerous implications for privacy, expression and even the rule of law. One called the measures “a disaster for free speech online”.
I believe those concerns are unfounded – not to say premature, as Ofcom has yet to be given the job. But I understand the basis for them.
Open expression is the lifeblood of the internet. Free speech is the beating heart of our democracy, values and modern society. It is also central to our work as the UK’s broadcasting watchdog, thanks to three important principles.
First, we never censor content. Our powers to sanction broadcasters who breach our rules apply only after a programme has aired. In fact, the clear, fair and respected code that we enforce on TV and radio acts as a strong deterrent against poor behaviour.
Second, we are independent from Government, free from corporate or political influence. We believe the same should be true of the online regulator.
And third, we are already legally required to secure audience protection in a way that best guarantees freedom for broadcasters’ to transmit a range of ideas – and your right to receive them.
Far from undermining free speech, good regulation can and does support it.
Clearly, tackling online harm presents significant new challenges, and not just the sheer amount of content. Harm takes different forms on different services, and evolves over time. Regulation will need to be flexible and proportionate, careful not to stifle innovation or disadvantage small firms and start-ups.
So, it makes sense that the Government has put freedom of expression at the heart of its planned approach.
Under the Government’s plans, there would be special protections for children. Platforms must guard against illegal content and quickly remove it – and if not, face action.
We understand this approach. If given the job, we would aim to build on our work as the media regulator. We would act sensibly and proportionately, focusing on the most serious and widespread harm, especially to children – not hounding small businesses or seeking to curtail the editorial freedom of news sites.
When it comes to really damaging material, the need for change is clear. Our research shows most people – and four in five children – have experienced harm online in the last year. Parents tell us they are increasingly worried about cyber-bullying, self-harm and even radicalisation online. Most favour new protections.
Some safeguards will come next year, when Ofcom takes on a specific role to address illegal content and damage to children on some video-sharing services. If confirmed as the watchdog for wider online harms, we would not underestimate the size of that challenge.
We would expect to have the resources and teeth to hold companies to account. Next year’s changes will allow us to fine video platforms up to 5% of their relevant revenue; tough enforcement would also be necessary against technology giants with billion-dollar turnovers.
The global nature of the web brings great challenges. But many of the solutions lie in established standards, such as the “freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers”.
The UN declared that freedom in the age of the telegram, but it’s no less important in the era of TikTok and Twitter.
Anchored in these values, I believe the UK can be a global pioneer in making the web a better place – through workable rules that reflect our fundamental rights and safeguard our society.