Ofcom gets to police the internet: will ask Facebook if it’s been enforcing its own guidelines

Ian Scales
By Ian Scales

Feb 13, 2020

via Flickr © mkhmarketing (CC BY 2.0)

via Flickr © mkhmarketing (CC BY 2.0)

  • Facebook will say, yes we have, here’s the report. 
  • Ofcom will say, “Thanks, see you next year,” or..
  • No you haven’t, so here’s a small fine

It’s been announced that UK telecom and media regulator, Ofcom, is to be in charge of regulating the internet. We now have more visibility of what this is likely to entail and it doesn’t look anything like a silver bullet for the most egregious problems. It seems, rather, to be aimed at child protection - very important, of course, but there are a few other problems that social media companies currently represent. Disinformation and political lying for instance don’t get a mention. 

The new regulations put Ofcom in charge, but it’s going to be up to the Internet companies - only the big ones apparently - to define their policies in terms of the acceptable online behaviour of their users. There’s not much about the behaviour of the big internet companies themselves - the focus is on user generated content.

So here’s the programme: internet companies such as Facebook and Google are to publish explicit statements setting out what behaviour they find acceptable on their sites. Ofcom is then charged with ensuring that the standards they set are met “consistently and transparently”. 

The home secretary, Priti Patel said the force of the regulation was to make it “incumbent on tech firms to balance issues of privacy and technological advances with child protection.”

It sounds a bit like an exercise in marking your own homework.

To ensure that Ofcom can keep on top of things, the Internet businesses will be required to publish annual ‘transparency reports’ explaining what harmful content they’ve intercepted and  removed and how the standards have been met.

Of course they’ve got to be honest or Ofcom can come down on them with fines... unless the site is not in the UK, in which case it can’t do anything...  or unless it’s small... or unless it’s a national newspaper, in which case it’s been privately assured that it’s not the target.  

Nevertheless, there has already been some hand-wringing by ‘smaller’ internet companies such as those national newspapers who, of course, also increasingly run sites which involve users commenting or uploading content. 

And then of course there might be content that a newspaper, say, has uploaded itself that might be construed as breaching its own guidelines.  Since firms are expected to come down hard on themselves in such cases, it doesn’t look likely that this will be policed effectively.

The big difficulty here though, is simply the size and scope of the content problem. “The role of policing the internet is ultimately more challenging than regulating broadcasting services,” observed Scott Morrison, Director at Berkeley Research Group. “Online firms operate internationally, and Ofcom may face jurisdictional issues in attempting to regulate these online firms. Furthermore, the sheer volume of online content is vast. For example, it is estimated that over 500 hours of content are uploaded to YouTube every minute. For online firms or Ofcom to police this content cannot be undertaken by humans alone, and will require some form of AI.”

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