The ground-breaking Online Safety Bill (the “OSB”) is in limbo waiting for 5 September 2022. This is the date when the UK’s new Prime Minister will be announced: Rishi Sunak or Liz Truss. One of the winner’s early decisions will be whether the OSB will proceed and, if so, in what form. But the new regulator of the internet under the Bill, Ofcom, is not putting everything on hold until 5 September. As Trevor Barnes, SMB Consultant and former Ofcom executive, reveals much is going on behind the scenes.
In common with many Chief Executives, the head of Ofcom, Melanie Dawes, is facing some opposition to her drive to persuade staff to return to work in the office in larger numbers and for longer periods. This however is just one of the challenges she is facing. Another important one is to prepare the ground for Ofcom being given its new and significant powers to protect internet users from harm when so much about the future of the OSB is unclear.
Most observers think the new Prime Minister is almost certain to press the ‘go’ button marked OSB. Certainly, Dawes is in this camp. She has just announced to Ofcom staff that a new Group Director is to be appointed to oversee online content policy and lead the regulator’s online safety team.
In effect, the job of the existing Ofcom Group Director, Broadcasting and Online Content, Kevin Bakhurst, is being split in two. If Ofcom wants to attract candidates for the new online job with tech experience, it will need to offer excellent remuneration. But with Bakhurst’s base salary being £248,000 in November 2021 (source: Ofcom Senior Salary Disclosure) this may not be too much of a problem.
Seventeen new online safety roles have it seems already been filled at Ofcom, with plans to double that number by the end of the year. There will be a massive recruitment drive starting in 2023 with the aim of lifting the total number of new online regulation posts to around 300.
Meanwhile, there is informed speculation at Ofcom that the new Prime Minister may decide to head off criticism of the OSB and the threat it potentially represents to freedom of expression by making it less ambitious. In particular, some think the new post-5 September Cabinet may well decide to excise altogether from the Bill the controversial ‘lawful but harmful’ category of internet content.
This will of course leave the illegal and child protection categories, which are the ones of most concern to the public. Britain’s biggest children’s charity, the NSPCC, warned only on 27 July that over 3,500 online child abuse crimes will take place every month that the OSB is delayed.
Meanwhile, the online services likely to be regulated under the OSB should note that Ofcom is in no mood to countenance delay. The regulator has confirmed that, despite the uncertainty surrounding the legislation, it will not be extending its deadline for responses to its Call for Evidence from tech companies and other stakeholders. This remains 13 September 2022. By that date, the UK will have a new Prime Minister and – hopefully – more clarity on what greater protection the public might expect from harm online.
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