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Ministers will ask Ofcom to police the internet in bid to combat 'unacceptable' bullying and terror content

3 min read

Ofcom will be asked to police tech firms under government plans to crack down on harmful online content.

A major shake-up, to be unveiled on Wednesday, will see online companies asked to sign up to a new “duty of care” towards users.

This will be overseen by the communications watchdog, which will be able to order them to quickly take down content promoting violence, terrorism, child abuse and cyber-bullying.

Platforms will also be asked to “minimise the risks” of the content appearing at all, and the Government will hold out the prospect of fines for firms that do not comply with the new rules.

The plans come in the Government’s first response to the Online Harms consultation, which was launched last year and vowed to tackle "illegal and unacceptable content" and "make companies more responsible for their users’ safety online, especially children and other vulnerable groups".

It will see Ofcom - which already regulates television and radio broadcasters - draw up guidelines telling companies which content they can and cannot have on their sites.

The Financial Times reports that the watchdog could then be given the power to force firms to take down content deemed harmful, with the regulator asked to decide whether fines or legal prosecution should follow for non-compliance.

The move would represent a significant expansion of Ofcom’s role, and could spark concerns about state censorship. 

When the proposals were first floated last year, the Internet Association - which represents firms including Amazon, Facebook and LinkedIn - warned that they could “hold back the British tech sector, worsen the quality of internet services for ordinary consumers, undermine privacy, and have a negative effect on freedom of speech”.

But Digital Secretary Baroness Morgan told the BBC: “There are many platforms who ideally would not have wanted regulation, but I think that's changing.

“I think they understand now that actually regulation is coming.”

Reacting to the move, newly-elected Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee chair Julian Knight said: "The DCMS Committee in the last parliament led calls for urgent legislation to prevent tech companies walking away from their responsibilities to tackle harmful content on their sites. Today’s statement fails to demonstrate the urgency that is required. 
“We called for the new regulator to be completely independent from Government which is why we demanded a right of veto over the appointment. 
“The regulator must take a muscular approach and be able to enforce change through sanctions that bite. That means more than a hefty fine – it means having the clout to disrupt the activities of businesses that fail to comply, and ultimately, the threat of a prison sentence for breaking the law." 

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