Ofcom has today published its Roadmap to Regulation, setting out its plan for implementing online safety regulation, based on the Online Safety Bill introduced into Parliament on 17 March 2022. The regulator describes how it plans to be ready to move as rapidly as possible after the Bill has passed to put its powers into practice, and the steps it has taken to date to be ready for its significant new role – including starting to build a hub in Manchester, where it aims to create 150 new jobs, out of an estimated 300-350 new roles required to deliver the regulations by the end of 2024.
Ofcom describes how it has engaged substantively with stakeholders from industry, civil society and other public bodies to properly engage with and deliver the objectives of the Bill, which seeks to ensure that services which host user generated content and search engines have effective and proportionate systems in place to protect users online.
The Bill is expected to receive Royal Assent in early 2023, meaning Ofcom's powers would commence in Spring 2023. The regulator sets out a detailed timeline for implementation – including aiming to publish guidance for risk assessments and Codes of Practice covering illegal content, which will assist services to understand how they can comply with their duties. It anticipates that secondary legislation, which will specify priority harms and set categorisation thresholds, will pass into law sometime in the year after Royal Assent. In this time, Ofcom plan to carry out sector risk assessments and to issue formal information requests to some services that they identify as facing particular risks. The consultation process is expected to last a year, after which final guidance and Codes will be published and the Secretary of State asked to lay the codes before Parliament, or direct Ofcom to modify them.
Ofcom envisages that the Codes will have sufficient clarity and simplicity such that even small services can be reasonably expected to follow them, and be sufficiently flexible that they are appropriate for a diverse range of services in scope, and to allow for evolution over time as technology and harms evolve. These are noble goals, which will be challenging to achieve in practice.
Whilst the largest online services will have been preparing for these changes for a significant period of time – and engaging in earlier consultations to ensure they will be ready and able to comply – such thinking will be entirely new to the approximately 25,000 smaller UK businesses, and many more located abroad, that the Government has estimated to be in scope of the Bill's requirements.
Alongside the Roadmap, Ofcom has also published a call for evidence asking for information about the assessment of the risk of harm from illegal content, about options for mitigating online harms, child access assessments and transparency requirements, the deadline for which is 12 September 2022.