Ofcom announces draft codes of practice to protect children online
Ofcom has published its draft codes of practice focusing on addressing illegal material online, after being announced as the regulator for online safety under the Online Safety Act, which came into law in October 2023.
The draft codes of practice come as a result of the first consultation addressing how Ofcom will protect users from illegal and harmful content online and enforce internet services to address illegal content on user-to-user and search services.
Protecting Children Online
The first codes of practice propose how larger and higher-risk online services should protect children from illegal online content.
By default, these services will be expected to ensure that:
- “Children are not presented with lists of suggested friends;”
- “Children do not appear in other users’ lists of suggested friends;”
- “Children are not visible in other users’ connection lists;”
- “Children’s connection lists are not visible to other users;”
- “Accounts outside a child’s connection list cannot send them direct messages;”
- “Children’s location information is not visible to any other users.”
The proposals also suggest that higher-risk services should use hash-matching technology to help detect and remove child sexual abuse material, and use automated tools to detect URLs that have been identified to host child sexual abuse material.
Harmful Content Online
This will be part of a series of changes expected from online services to strengthen how their users can protect themselves from harmful and illegal content. Services will now be expected to ensure that users can easily report harmful content and block other users.
Further proposals include enforcing search services to provide crisis prevention information relating to any queries regarding suicide and suicide methods.
Ofcom also aims to tackle online fraud, with implementations of automatic keyword detection for posts involving stolen credentials.
The UK Safer Internet Centre successfully campaigned for amendments to the Online Safety Bill this summer around the enforcement of harmful content and the need for independent appeals processes. The ‘Don’t Steal My Right to Appeal’ campaign raised awareness which resulted in a review period of two years being introduced. Ofcom must publish a full report to the Government on their ongoing enforcement of harmful online content, and review whether there is a need for an independent appeals process.
Once finalised, these draft codes are expected to form the basis of online safety regulation in the UK. This is the first of four major consultations that Ofcom will publish over the next 18 months, as they establish their new powers as online safety regulator, in line with the Online Safety Act.
Later this year, Ofcom will be releasing further proposals around how adult sites ensure that children cannot access pornographic content online. A further consultation will also be published in Spring 2024, addressing more protections from harmful content for children, including suicide, self-harm, eating disorders and cyberbullying content.
David Wright, CEO of SWGfL and Director of UK Safer Internet Centre said:
”We welcome these draft codes of practice from Ofcom. It is an encouraging start towards a new era of safer internet use. Once finalised, these codes will mark a significant step forward for protecting users whenever they go online. This has come after many years of trying to get the Online Safety Act over the line, so it is admirable to see proactive steps taking place to ensure these practices are implemented effectively.”
If you’ve been affected by harmful content online, you can use the UK Safer Internet Centre service Report Harmful Content to help escalate your reports or find out about the terms and conditions of many online social media platforms.