Ofcom given power to fine to Facebook, YouTube and Instagram
Critics blast proposal to ‘quietly’ make Ofcom a ‘super-regulator’ by giving it swingeing powers to dish out multi-million pound fines to Facebook, YouTube and Instagram for publishing ‘harmful’ videos
- Media regulator will be able to fine internet company 5% of revenues from 2020
- Ofcom already told it will get the powers – but public consultation is still open
- Powers may be transferred next September without a debate or vote by MPs
- Experts fear Ofcom will have too much power and allowed to ‘make up the rules’
- Ofcom’s outgoing boss says any new rules must ‘protect freedom of speech’
Ofcom, which is run by chief executive Sharon White (pictured), has ‘quietly’ been handed new powers to police the internet
Ofcom has ‘quietly’ been handed powers to levy millions in fines to social media giants including Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube who share ‘harmful’ videos or fail to introduce strict new age checks, it was revealed today.
The Government is under fire after it emerged it agreed the deal with Britain’s broadcasting watchdog before the public consultation closes at the end of August.
Ofcom – which already polices TV, radio and broadband in the UK – will become a ‘super-regulator’ from September 19 2020, but there are concerns it will wield too much power.
From next year internet companies will be fined up to five per cent of their UK revenues if they fail to stop children seeing pornography and violence online – or if they break age verification rules due by the end of 2019.
For example, based on its UK sales, Facebook would have to pay a penalty of around £60million and bosses including Mark Zuckerberg could even be hit with huge personal fines, it has been claimed.
Ofcom will also be able to ‘suspend’ a website if they break the rules on videos or age verification – but there are worries the powers could be misused to shut down pages they disagree with and curb freedom of speech and the Press.
The swingeing powers could also be brought into law without allowing MPs to debate the powers and vote on them, MailOnline understands.
Tech policy expert Heather Burns fears the Government’s plan could allow Ofcom ‘to make up [the rules] as they go’, especially as ministers promised a new independent internet regulator.
She said: ‘The Conservatives seem to see the tech sector as being only Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, and are determined to rein them in with sweepingly punitive legislation – even if those plans have a devastating effect on the UK’s domestic tech sector in the process.
‘The Tories, in their vendetta against social media, want to set up the regulator first, and let them make it up as they go.’
Ms Burns added: ‘As for Ofcom, as opposed to a new regulator – as was proposed in the strategy – again, that should be a matter for Parliamentary debate. They are payloading this plan onto an EU law so they can blame them when a domestic strategy proves unworkable.’
Facebook would have to pay a penalty of up to £60million if it broke the new publishing laws, it has emerged
The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport has been accused of rushing through the decision and using ‘off the shelf’ rules from Brussels rather than creating its own legislation.
Ofcom boss: New rules and age checks must not damage press freedom
Sweeping regulations designed to tame the web giants must not be so ‘blunt’ that they damage Press freedom, the boss of Ofcom warned last month.
In a powerful speech, Sharon White said that news organisations have ‘valid’ criticisms of proposals to introduce age checks on websites.
Ms White will soon join John Lewis as new boss.
But in oner of her final speeches she warned that rules governing the sort of content allowed online must be ‘proportionate’ and ‘protect freedom of speech’ – both by members of the public, and by news websites.
‘Age walls are one option, but there are valid concerns from news sites,’ she said.
‘In a similar way, rules around online content need to be proportionate. The internet is a wonderful tool for people to express their views, and blunt regulation could undermine that. Half of adults told us as much.
‘So we favour regulation that protects freedom of expression – not just by users, but also by newspapers who publish online.’
There has been a clamour for social media platforms such as YouTube, Instagram and Facebook to be punished for allowing users to share videos that could be seen by children and damage them.
But critics are unhappy with the way the decision has been made and warned it could be ‘bad news’ for Britain’s tech sector who could also be hit by legislation designed to punish social media giants.
Rachel Coldicutt, chief executive of think tank DotEveryone, told MailOnline: ‘The problem with a single body is that the internet touches everything, so a single regulator would have enormous power.
‘Extending Ofcom’s remit won’t address monopolies, surveillance, misuse of algorithms – the list is almost endless.
‘Regulating content online isn’t just an extension of regulating broadcast media, and it’s important to remember online content is just one piece of the internet regulation jigsaw. Fining YouTube, for instance, won’t make much change unless the government is also prepared to regulate the design patterns, algorithms and underlying business models that make it possible and profitable to publish and distribute online content’.
The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport said today the new powers on videos shared online will be given to Ofcom on an ‘interim basis’ – but admitted it could become permanent.
Ofcom today welcomed the step and a spokesman said: ‘These new rules are an important first step in regulating video-sharing online, and we’ll work closely with the government to implement them.
The Information Commissioner’s Office has proposed a code which would force firms to introduce new age checks on their websites, or treat all of their users as if they are children
‘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’.
The Government has been working on plans to hold technology companies accountable for content published on their websites but only today has its full plans emerged.
A spokesman for the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport said: ‘The implementation of the AVMSD [Audiovisual Media Services Directive] is required as part of the United Kingdom’s obligations arising from its membership of the European Union and until the UK formally leaves the European Union all of its obligations remain in force.
‘If the UK leaves the European Union without a deal, we will not be bound to transpose the AVMSD into UK law’.
Facebook Mark Zuckerberg and others who run video-sharing websites could even be hit with huge personal fines, it has been claimed.
Sweeping regulations designed to tame the web giants must not be so ‘blunt’ that they damage Press freedom, the outgoing boss of Ofcom warned last month.
Sharon White, who will join John Lewis in 2020, said that news organisations have ‘valid’ criticisms of proposals to introduce age checks on websites.
And she warned that rules governing the sort of content allowed online must be ‘proportionate’ and ‘protect freedom of speech’ – both by members of the public, and by news websites.
From next year Ofcom will be able to punish companies if they fail to properly verify the ages of website visitors where videos are considered to ‘impair physical, mental or moral development’.
In April, the Government’s Online Harms White Paper set out plans for a new internet watchdog which would have the power to block websites from the internet in Britain if they did not adhere to its rules.
Shortly afterwards, the Information Commissioner’s Office proposed a code which would force web firms to introduce strict new age checks on their websites, or treat all of their users as if they are children.
The code – which is backed by existing law – is so stringent that critics fear people could end up being forced to demonstrate their age for virtually every website they visit, or have the services that they can access limited as if they are under 18.
Last month, the Society of Editors warned that it will ‘severely damage’ national newspapers and broadcasters, because they will lose so much web traffic, and the ability to collect information to sell advertising.
And it will drive regional newspapers to the point of collapse, it warned.
Meanwhile, critics have also warned that the Government White Paper could usher in the style of censorship favoured by totalitarian regimes which regularly shut down websites they disagree with.
Broadcasters including the BBC are also demanding regulation of online and video streaming competitors.
BBC director general, Tony Hall, has repeatedly complained that video streaming firms such as Netflix and Amazon are not regulated to the same extent as broadcasters.
In a report last year, Ofcom said any potential regulation should provide protection and assurance to the public but uphold freedom of expression and allow the public to share and receive ideas without unnecessary interference.
The media regulator added that clear and strict punishments needed to be in place to enforce the regulations properly, including ‘meaningful financial penalties.’
Research also commissioned by Ofcom shows one in five Brits have experienced harmful content or conduct.
Four in five are worried about going online because of fears over ‘illegal, dangerous, misleading or inappropriate’ content, and hacking and privacy concerns.
The data was collected after face-to-face interviews with 1,700 internet users aged 16 or over.
WHAT HAVE OTHERS SAID ABOUT FACEBOOK’S NEGATIVE IMPACTS ON ITS USERS?
Ex-Google and Facebook workers are campaigning to raise awareness of the negative effects of using products made by their former employers.
Among their concerns are addiction to technology and its impact on individuals, particularly children and younger users, as well as society as a whole.
Tristan Harris, a former in-house ethicist at Google is spearheading the new group, called the Center for Humane Technology.
The newly-launched initiative, which is working with the nonprofit media watchdog group Common Sense Media, is planning to lobby the United States government over tech addiction.
It is also undertaking an advertising campaign aimed at 55,000 public schools in the US, to raise awareness with parents, students and teachers over its concerns.
These include the mental health effects of overuse of social media, including depression, stress, anxiety, self-image and self-worth, according to the group’s website.
The campaign, called The Truth About Tech, also seeks to address more wide-ranging problems caused by technology, including its power to influence our relationships and even our political beliefs.
Speaking to the New York Times Mr Harris, said: ‘We were on the inside. We know what the companies measure. We know how they talk, and we know how the engineering works.
‘The largest supercomputers in the world are inside of two companies — Google and Facebook — and where are we pointing them?
‘We’re pointing them at people’s brains, at children.’
In December 2017, former Facebook executive Chamath Palihapitiya also spoke out against the social network he helped to create, saying it is ‘ripping society apart’.
Mr Palihapitiya, who joined Facebook in 2007 and became its vice president for user growth, said he feels ‘tremendous guilt’ for the influence Facebook has had and its ability to manipulate users.
He also suggested users take a break from using social media altogether.
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