UK advertising bodies have welcomed a government indication that communications watchdog Ofcom could become the regulator to enforce rules to make the internet a safer place, in what would be a world first.

In an initial response to the consultation on the Online Harms White Paper – which seeks to address behaviour online which may hurt a person physically or emotionally – the government said it was “minded” to legislate to appoint Ofcom to hold online platforms hosting user-generated content to account if they do not tackle internet harms such as child sexual exploitation and abuse and terrorism.

A press release explained that “companies will be required to explicitly state what content and behaviour is acceptable on their sites in clear and accessible terms and conditions and enforce these effectively, consistently and transparently”.

The regulations will not prevent adults from accessing or posting legal content that some people may find offensive, it added; freedom of expression has to be protected.

“It is absolutely right that government is taking further action, and there is much to welcome in this initial consultation response,” said ISBA Director General Phil Smith.

“We are pleased that Ministers recognise the importance of freedom of expression and the need to maintain a vibrant public square. This is essential if we are to continue to back enterprise and support the advertising sector, which is the engine of our successful, exporting creative industries.

“ISBA has long advocated the need for proportionate regulation of digital platforms,” he added. “We support the granting to Ofcom of the power to help deliver an effective, fairly-funded, and collaborative regulatory environment – establishing common principles and codes of conduct, and supporting systemic transparency and accountability. We look forward to Ofcom evolving its expertise to meet what is a novel challenge.”

IPA Director General Paul Bainsfair was broadly supportive of the government’s decision. “On a macro level, it will be interesting to see how this new regulation will balance out protection of individuals from harmful content with freedom of speech,” he said. “And on an industry level, whether such regulation could risk innovation as large existing platforms with ad revenue can, in general, more easily comply.” 

The CBI welcomed the “good balance between ensuring safety and enabling business growth”, while Facebook – one of the companies affected by this development – also backed the move. “New rules are needed so that we have a more common approach across platforms and private companies aren’t making so many important decisions alone,” said Rebecca Stimson, the tech giant’s head of UK public policy.

Free market think tanks were more sceptical. The Institute for Economic Affairs argued that handing powers to Ofcom would create more red tape, while the Adam Smith Institute feared the implications for free speech.

Sourced from DCMS, City AM; additional content by WARC staff