Digital is not a sector – why regulators must collaborate for a safer life online

06 October 2021

Melanie’s address to International Institute of Communications, Annual Conference, 6 October 2021, 2pm.

Introduction

Thank you Monica – and hello, from London, to all our IIC friends and partners.

Today I wanted to share Ofcom’s perspective on an extraordinary year; the challenges that lie ahead; and how we hope to meet them by working together.

As our countries have wrestled with the tragic impact of coronavirus, millions of people around the world were unable to travel, to see loved ones, to work or learn together.

In that time, we learned that being connected is everything. I joined Ofcom just as the pandemic was taking hold, and it was striking to witness how quickly it changed howpeople communicate. For us, that means all the sectors that our converged remit already covers, or soon will:  TV, radio, telecoms, post, wireless spectrum and online.

In the UK, time online reached record highs. People spent, on average, more than a quarter of their waking day connected. The amount of broadband data we use in the UK doubled. So did the time people spent watching streaming services.

Now, of course, our industries have never been strangers to change. Throughout the IIC’s 52 years, they have been powered by innovation, technology and opportunity. But that change has never been so rapid; nor has it carried such profound implications for our societies and democracies.

The number of platforms, devices and networks that serve up content continues to grow. So do the technological and economic issues confronting regulators. In Ofcom’s case, these go wider than traditional media and telecoms. They include network security, resilience, supply chains and online content.

Telecoms networks are migrating from traditional hardware to cloud services offered by Amazon, Microsoft and Google. Consumer services like WhatsApp or Zoom are provided by traditional telecoms operators and internet-based firms working across the value chain. Those networks are increasingly providing TV and video content on demand.

Convergence like this brings complex, overlapping issues. No single body, country or even continent can address them alone. Nor can we meet any of the biggest challenges we face – whether it’s the impact of Covid on our sector, or the blistering pace of technological and societal change – if we stand apart.

So I believe passionately that the IIC, with collaboration at its heart, has never been more important. And today I’d like to highlight two areas where partnerships will be essential if we’re to achieve our common aims.

First, working with our international partners to help create a safer life online for our people, our families and our children. This is a growing priority for governments around the world.

And second, a new way of sharing expertise within our own countries, so that we can grasp and address the complexities of the digital world.

A safer life online – working globally

Let’s start with online safety, where there is a global appetite for change.

The internet economy has boosted productivity and helped businesses reach new markets. It has given users new opportunities to express themselves, communicate more freely and reach a wider, audience. But companies have too often prioritised rapid growth – reaching unprecedented breadth and scale – over the safety of their users.

Across Europe, media regulators – including Ofcom – are now overseeing sites and apps used to share videos.

Although the UK is no longer part of the EU, the Government has implemented these new European laws here too.

They require ‘video-sharing platforms’ to take steps to protect under-18s from harmful material – and to protect everyone from incitement to hatred or violence, and other criminal material. For us in the UK, 18 services are in scope – from high-profile social media like Snapchat and TikTok, to adult services, travel and gaming sites.

We’re already working with the platforms to help them understand the new rules. Today, we’ve published guidance on how they should comply.

Over the next year, we plan to focus on them reducing the risk of material such as child sexual abuse, online hate and terrorism. We’ll also be looking for improvements to how they ensure content is appropriate to the age of their users.

Looking further ahead, we’re building on our experience with video sites by getting ready to regulate online safety. This is a job which the UK Government will give to Ofcom in new legislation. That remit is another untested area globally, so I thought it might be helpful to explain briefly how we’ll approach the task.

The new laws will introduce a duty of care, requiring all online services that allow users to generate and share content, or to interact with each other, to look after their users. Search services will also be accountable for protecting them from illegal content.

Each company in scope must tackle illegal content and protect children. Bigger, high-risk services must protect adult users from ‘legal-but-harmful’ content too.

Now, clearly, it will never be possible to prevent every instance of harm occurring. We all know the internet is virtually a boundless realm. So the UK Parliament is not asking Ofcom to regulate online content.

Instead, we’ll be asked to hold platforms to account for assessing the risks to their users, and putting in place concrete measures to address them. For the main part, we’ll be examining and enforcing against their systems and processes, rather the content. That’s an important difference to how we regulate TV and radio.

It is also quite a ground-breaking area. These coming rules, and even the current ones on video-sharing platforms, are relatively untried around the world. And that is what makes cooperation so important.

Many of you are grappling with the same issues as us: illegal content, age assurance, privacy and protecting children. Our citizens are increasingly members of the same audience – whether to Facebook, YouTube, Amazon or Netflix.

The content we watch, and the data we share, show scant respect for national borders. They travel through the air, under sea and over global networks at the speed of light.

So we have joint opportunity to shape the future online world together – combining our skills, sharing our findings, supporting enforcement and setting common standards.

And just as collaboration is important between our countries, it also matters within them. Every regulator has a defined remit and skillset. But none of us can address online content without a wider, shared understanding of online markets: the economics behind the platforms’ business; the relationships between price, privacy and data; the effects of market power; the growing role of AI; and the rapid emergence of digital financial services.

We need partners who specialise in all these aspects of the digital world. Because digital is not a sector of the economy with a single regulator to match. Increasingly, it’s just the way we live our lives.

Explaining the DRCF

That is why, in the UK, we are collaborating in a second way – through a new body. We have formed something called the Digital Regulation Cooperation Forum.

Ofcom is playing its part, given our VSP, online and networks role. Our fellow UK members are the Information Commissioner’s Office – which leads on data protection; the Financial Conduct Authority – which has roles supporting fintech and open banking, and tackling the growing problem of financial scams; and the Competition and Markets Authority – which, at the risk of bombarding you with names, is also leading a separate Digital Markets Unit to oversee competition rules for the most powerful digital firms.

Now the aim of the DRCF is clear, consistent and co-ordinated regulation. We also want to build a collective view of important industry trends and innovations. We can pool resources and avoid duplication. And we can respond quickly to changes in the market.

Here’s one example. Ofcom oversees how video platforms check their users’ age. There is also a separate, legal requirement for online services to protect children’s data. So the ICO has developed a code for them to follow, and we need to ensure our respective rules are coherent.

In some ways, the new digital forum is an experiment. Our members have always worked together; but this goes further. It is not a legal entity. We are not creating new powers for ourselves. Instead, we want to share goals and solve problems together, through a new body.

The forum already has a plan of work. Very briefly, to give you a flavour, here are three things we’re doing together.

First, we’re setting up joint projects in areas like algorithms, encryption and advertising – working with another UK body, the Advertising Standards Authority.

Second, we’re developing joint approaches to regulation, making sure existing rules and codes are consistent.

Third, we are finding practical ways to share our respective knowledge, skills and resources in areas such as AI, data analysis and harmful scams.

Our new forum helps us to consider these aspects in the round, rather than in isolation. Take privacy and anonymity. We know that encryption can provide confidentiality to users. In some countries, people may not even feel able to participate in public debates without the shield of anonymity. But at the same time, if these features make it difficult for companies to know what’s happening on their platform, it might be harder for them to assess risks to other users.

So these are not binary questions; they are complex, interlocking issues which require a sophisticated, joined-up approach.

Conclusion

These are just some examples of how we’re approaching these issues together in the UK. We’ve already found our joint forum to be incredibly powerful and productive. I know our colleagues in the Republic of Ireland are taking a similar approach, which I’m really looking forward to hearing about.

Because although every market has its own features and priorities, with different legal frameworks and histories of regulation, so many of our challenges are the same.

When I joined Ofcom last year, I was delighted to discover the strength of our global networks and friendships. There is no priority we hold, no area of work we are engaged in, that cannot be enhanced and informed by the perspectives you bring.

That means not just online safety, but also traditional media, telecoms and spectrum. Not just content regulation, but equally networks, competition and economics.

So Ofcom will keep working around the world, to learn and share ideas and experiences. We hope to hear from all of you. And we’ll aim to be a constructive, informative voice in the global conversation around the future of communications, as we each consider how best to serve our citizens.

Thank you.