Ofcom is to be given the power to fine social media companies in a bid to protect children from “harmful” content online.

The government proposal, which is currently under consultation, will allow Ofcom – which already polices TV, radio and broadband in the UK – to issue fines against platforms and websites if it believes they have failed to protect users from seeing harmful videos such as those depicting violence or child abuse.

“The directive proposed a number of appropriate measures to protect minors and the general public from harmful content,” a spokesperson for the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) said.

”The government has proposed that Ofcom is given interim powers to regulate video-sharing platform services and ensure they comply with minimum standards set out in the Audiovisual Media Services Directive (AVMSD) by the transposition deadline,19 September 2020. We are currently consulting on this approach.“

The move follows the publication of the Online Harms White Paper in April, which called for new legislation to make social media companies responsible for protecting their users.

The DCMS said the move would allow the UK to meet its obligations to the EU regarding online safety, which call for sites to establish strict age verification checks and parental controls to ensure young children are not exposed to harmful content.

If any platforms fail to meet the requirements, Ofcom will be able to issue fines of £250,000 or an amount worth up to five per cent of a company’s revenues.

It will also have the power to “suspend” or “restrict” the tech giants’ services in the UK if they fail to comply with enforcement measures.

The DCMS has said that the new powers will be given to Ofcom on an “interim basis” but admitted it could become permanent. 

“These new rules are an important first step in regulating video-sharing online, and we’ll work closely with the government to implement them,” a spokesperson for Ofcom commented.

“We also support plans to go further and legislate for a wider set of protections, including a duty of care for online companies towards their users.”

Child safety charity the NSPCC said the measures were an important step in holding social media and internet firms to account.

Andy Burrows, the charity’s head of child safety online policy said: “This directive is an important opportunity to regulate social networks with user-generated video or livestream functions as early as next year. 

“The immediacy of livestreaming can make children more vulnerable to being coerced by abusers, who may capture the footage, share it and use it as blackmail.

“The directive gives the UK a chance to introduce tough measures on tech firms that have their European headquarters here.

“Crucially, this is a real chance to bring in legislative protections ahead of the forthcoming Online Harms Bill and to finally hold sites to account if they put children at risk.”

In March, the father of Molly Russell urged the government to introduce regulation on social media platforms in response to the suicide of his 14-year-old daughter, who was found to have viewed content related to depression and suicide on Instagram before her death.

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Former prime minister Theresa May said the proposals were a result of social media companies’ failure to self-regulate.

“The internet can be brilliant at connecting people across the world – but for too long these companies have not done enough to protect users, especially children and young people, from harmful content,” May said at the time.

“That is not good enough, and it is time to do things differently. We have listened to campaigners and parents, and are putting a legal duty of care on internet companies to keep people safe.”


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