MPs warn that online safety laws may take years to have an impact

The Public Accounts Committee has noted the progress made by Ofcom in preparing for its new responsibilities, but warned that the regulator – and other stakeholders – need to take further action

Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee has warned that it could take years for the public to feel the benefit of the Online Safety Act and said it will be “critical” for the new regulations to continue to be reviewed.

A new report from the committee notes that, as the regulation will not be fully implemented until 2026, there is a risk that public confidence will be undermined if the legislation does not quickly bring about tangible changes to online experiences.

Under the new law, individuals must first complain to service providers, who then handle complaints. If they are not acted upon, individuals can then complain to Ofcom, the main regulator responsible for enacting the legislation. But the telecoms watchdog is not able to then act on complaints individually – but, rather, use them in concert to understand “whether regulated services are appropriately protecting their users and if we should take any action”.

The committee has therefore called on Ofcom to make members of the public aware of any subsequent outcomes related to issue raised in complaints. PAC did, however, acknowledge that the regulator has made a “good start” in preparing for its new role in upholding online safety.

Labour MP and PAC chair Meg Hillier told PublicTechnology sister publication PoliticsHome that she was concerned that in the UK, “we legislate pretty badly” and would therefore need a review of the Online Safety Act to ensure the outcomes are continually evaluated as technologies develop and new harms emerge.

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“There is a need for people to see quick improvements,” she said. “It is going to be challenging to evaluate – I don’t think anyone thinks it is done.”

She added that more needed to be done to establish a “public record” of where online harms were identified and what action was being taken to mitigate them – a challenge, she admitted, when Ofcom is responsible for regulating 100,000 service providers.

The PAC inquiry also heard that Ofcom will rely on automated processes that are not yet in place to ensure companies comply with the regulations. The report has also called on Ofcom to urgently finalise these processes and provide clarity over how it will approach dealing with providers who refuse to engage with the guidance.

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.”

Prime minister Rishi Sunak told the House of Commons at prime minister’s questions on Wednesday that home secretary James Cleverly will meet tech industry figures on Monday to discuss online safety further.

“The Online Safety Act requires companies to offer all adults optional user identity verification, companies will also need to take firm action to improve safety for children in particular, and Ofcom will be able to monitor tech companies and have strong powers to ensure they comply,” he said.

Andy Burrows, consultant for the Molly Rose Foundation, a suicide prevention charity that was set up after a 14-year-old girl took her own life after viewing self-harm content online, told PoliticsHome he felt the PAC report showed the “lack of ambition” in the scope of the act.

“The report very correctly highlights this potential disconnect between what Ofcom is likely to deliver and the reasonable expectations about what the regime should offer,” he said. “The public at large will judge the success or otherwise of this regime by two key measures: one is whether we see a clear reduction in the risk [such as] child abuse, suicide and self harm content through to awful racist abuse and misogyny.  And the other test will be their own experience of using social media and whether we see an improvement in platforms being less toxic and promoting less harmful and misogynistic content.”

The full version of this story can be read on PublicTechnology sister publication PoliticsHome

Zoe Crowther

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