Internet platforms could face fines and “sanctions for directors” if Ofcom is appointed the online regulator, its chief executive has told MPs.
Dame Melanie Dawes said financial penalties “need to be part” of the sanctions included in Online Harms regulation currently being prepared by the Government.
Speaking to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Select Committee, she said the key question was “what else needs to be in there?”, and suggested the Government was looking at other possible penalties, including personal sanctions for directors.
She also said that Ofcom could use existing penalties such as a “disruption of service temporarily” against sites who fail to protect users.
Earlier this year, the Government said it was “minded” to appoint Ofcom as the regulator to oversee the Online Harms legislation, the full details of which are still to be published.
The proposals will require internet and social media companies to abide by a duty of care and protect their users from harmful content – with penalties for those who fail to do so.
Dame Melanie told MPs that although Ofcom has not yet been officially given the role, it was already taking some preparatory action.
“We are in close discussion with colleagues in DCMS, the Home Office and elsewhere at the moment and, as you say, we haven’t been confirmed as the online regulator and it’s important for me to emphasise that,” she said.
“Should we be appointed, we have been giving some thought to how we would do it and it’s clearly a big task.
“The Government said they were minded to appoint us because we have got some relevant experience in this area and we’re already established so we could move more quickly, and in particular our broadcasting experience puts us into some of the same judgements around the need to protect freedom of speech and cherish freedom of speech in fact, alongside protecting the public from harm.”
She would not be drawn, however, on a specific set of rules and penalties the regulations should include.
She confirmed that the protection of young people should be prioritised by the regulations, and said ministers must also consider legal harms such as bullying and where they should sit within the duty of care.
“Clearly for younger people, even things which are not always illegal, such as bullying and unfair treatment of each other, matter more to young people – they’re more likely to be vulnerable, they are less equipt to be able to deal with the issues,” she said.
Dame Melanie also praised social media platforms despite such issues, acknowledging them as a “lifeline” for young people during lockdown and enabling them to stay in touch with family and friends.
MPs asked the Ofcom boss for her judgement on the response of social media to misinformation and disinformation during the coronavirus pandemic, to which Dame Melanie said the regulator had seen positive actions from platforms such as Twitter and WhatsApp.
“Although there’s no regulatory framework in place we have seen quite a lot of action from the platforms, in particular taking steps to reduce the speed at which content is spread,” she said.
“So, for example, we’ve seen Twitter trialling ways of making it just that little bit harder and time-consuming to forward content that you haven’t read. We’ve seen WhatsApp reducing the number of people that you can forward content to – which has actually, I understand, reduced their overall forwarding of content by 70%.
“So these are measures which, if you like, reduce the virality – the R number to use an analogy from the epidemic itself – of misinformation and disinformation on the web.”
However, Dame Melanie said she still had concerns over how harmful and misleading content could currently spread more easily online compared to areas already centrally regulated, such as traditional broadcasting.
She highlighted a David Icke interview which was broadcast on local TV station London Live, where the conspiracy theorist shared his unsubstantiated views on the causes behind the outbreak of Covid-19.
She said that while Ofcom had been able to take action against the broadcaster over the incident, videos of the interview were still able to spread on platforms such as YouTube, although she did acknowledge that YouTube had moved to take them down.