Ofcom has estimated that it will cost around £169m over the next two years to implement the UK’s oft-delayed online safety reforms.
The Online Safety Bill is intended to make tech firms accountable for harmful third-party content hosted on their platforms, ranging from illegal content such as terrorist propaganda to abusive content that falls below the threshold of criminality, such as bullying of minors.
It will be enforced by the communications regulator, Ofcom, which could block access to their sites, fine them either up to 10 per cent of annual turnover or £18m (whichever is higher), and hold senior managers criminally liable for failures of duty of care.
The regulator said it has made a good start in its preparations for implementing the new regime. But according to a report by the National Audit Office (NAO) it must now “manage risks” around monitoring, scope and financing.
The report looked at whether the preparations already undertaken are sufficiently advanced to ensure that the bill can be implemented properly. It is expected to receive Royal Assent in October and the full regulatory regime will be put in place in phases in the following two years.
According to an Ofcom survey in 2022, 68 per cent of child (13-17) internet users and 62 per cent of adult (18 and older) internet users indicated they had experienced at least one potential online harm in the four weeks before the survey. Harmful content varies, from child sexual abuse material and terrorist content to online fraud and the encouragement of self-harm.
Ofcom estimates that the cumulative costs of preparing for and implementing the regime could total £169m by the end of 2024-25, of which £56m will have been incurred by the end of 2022-23. The regime is intended to become self-financing through a fee structure. Ofcom estimates that it could need to regulate more than 100,000 services, with the majority based overseas, and interacting with the regulator for the first time.
Ofcom still has lots to do to develop the new regulatory regime once the Bill becomes law. It will have to publish more than 40 separate regulatory documents and needs to consider how it will manage public and industry expectations about the regime’s impact to “provide confidence from the outset”, the NAO report said.
“Securing adequate protection of citizens from online harms is a significant new role for Ofcom, and it has made a good start to its preparations,” said NAO head Gareth Davies.
“Ofcom will need to manage several risks in a way that delivers value for money. It will need to move quickly to cover any gaps in its preparations should the scope of the legislation change further between now and implementation. It will be regulating over 100,000 bodies, most based overseas, which have not been regulated by Ofcom before.
“And it will need to cover its costs by introducing fees so that the regime becomes self-financing. As ever, access to good quality data will be essential for Ofcom to monitor the compliance of services and to evaluate its own effectiveness and for DSIT to know that the regime is working.”
Rani Govender, senior child safety online policy officer at the NSPCC, said it was “good to see preparations are going well”.
“The sheer scale of the job the regulator faces means they must ensure their work is well targeted to the greatest risks to children, and this requires consistently understanding the experiences of young users.
“It’s therefore crucial that children are at the heart of Ofcom’s preparation and future work. The Government could underpin this by creating a statutory online child safety advocate in the legislation that exists to amplify the voices and experiences of children online.”
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