Fines to be part of regulating social media, says Ofcom
Ofcom will not hesitate to impose fines on social media companies that fail to manage malicious content, said his new boss.
The watchdog would also consider temporarily suspending platforms in extreme cases of damage.
Dame Melanie Dawes has established the powers Ofcom would use if, as expected, he is appointed regulator.
He was answering questions from MPs from the Digital, Culture, Media and Sports Committee.
The government has not yet announced which entity will be assigned the role of supervising content on Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and Google, although Ofcom is the most likely candidate.
The new regulator will have the power to impose sanctions on a range of content including bullying, child abuse, terrorism and fake news.
“Fines must be part of the regime. They are extremely large companies with significant financial weight,” he told MPs.
France recently passed a law requiring social media to remove hate speech and illegal content within an hour or face heavy fines.
Dame Dawes acknowledged that regulating Facebook, Twitter and Facebook would be a “big challenge”, but promised that if Ofcom were nominated for the role, “he would light the light” and “take them into consideration,” he told MPs. .
He said it would require recruiting data analysts and revealed that “someone from Google” had already been nominated.
But he acknowledged that finding the right qualified people would be a challenge and it would be difficult to get people to switch from well-paid jobs in the private sector to a role in the public sector.
The DCMS had previously listened to social media companies about how they dealt with online damage and expressed frustration with the actions taken to manage disinformation around Covid-19.
Dame Dawes was kinder in her assessment, borrowing an analogy from virologists when she claimed that the “R number” for viral disinformation had been reduced by social media companies with a series of new measures.
This included Facebook’s decision to limit the amount of content that could be forwarded via WhatsApp and Twitter’s decision to limit the sharing of articles by users who had not read them.
Several MPs wanted to know how Ofcom would keep children safe online, and particularly whether the regulator would monitor self-harm images.
The case of 14-year-old Molly Russell, who committed suicide after seeing self-harming images on Instagram, raised the problem and convinced the government of the need to appoint a social media regulator.
Dame Dawes did not rule out the possibility of lawsuits against social media companies, including so-called super complaints potentially launched with the help of charities such as the NSPCC.
She was also asked if the watchdog would try to limit the amount of time the kids were online, but said it would be difficult to give a definitive figure on how long it was too long.
She also refused to be drawn into the problem of foreign interference on social networks, but said anonymous Twitter accounts, which could be Russian robots, were an area that needed to be investigated.
“We need to know a lot more about anonymous account behavior. Transparency isn’t good enough at the moment,” he said.
Dame Dawes, who was appointed to her post three weeks before the UK went to a halt, said the pandemic raised three major challenges for the regulator:
- keep mobile networks functioning as more people use online services
- support for vulnerable customers
- the financial and commercial impact of the pandemic on public broadcasters
He said the networks “largely” performed well overall.
And he added that public broadcasters did “a good job” to entertain, inform and educate the nation during the blockade.
He also revealed that Ofcom research suggested that children aged 12 to 15 used the BBC as their “first source” of news.
Dame Dawes was nominated for the role of Ofcom in February. Previously, she was permanent secretary in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government.