Thursday 27 February 2020 12:11 pm

Online harms laws will not harm free speech, vows Ofcom boss

The rollout of new laws to tackle so-called online harms will not lead to censorship or damage free speech, a top Ofcom executive has said.

Earlier this month the government said it would appoint Ofcom as Britain’s first internet watchdog, tasked with crackdown down on illegal and harmful material on social media sites.

Read more: Ofcom set for role as ‘online harms’ regulator

The beefed-up regulator will be granted powers to hand down fines to firms such as Facebook and Youtube if they fail to police the content posted to their platforms.

The move has sparked a backlash from free speech campaigners, who have warned the new laws will amount to censorship.

But Kevin Bakhurst, the regulator’s content group director, today said these concerns were “unfounded” as his organisation never censored content.

“Open expression is the lifeblood of the internet. Free speech is the beating heart of our democracy, values and modern society,” he wrote in an article first published in the Times. “Far from undermining free speech, good regulation can and does support it.”

Bakhurst said that its powers to sanction broadcasters only applied retrospectively, adding that Ofcom was independent from government and “free from corporate or political influence”.

He added that the watchdog was already legally required to guarantee freedom for broadcasters to transmit a range of ideas.

However, the Ofcom chief acknowledged that regulating user-generated content on the internet posed a new challenge.

Bakhurst said new rules on video platforms, set to come into force next year, will give Ofcom the power to fine some companies five per cent of their revenue.

“Tough enforcement would also be necessary against technology giants with billion-dollar turnovers,” he added.

Business groups have also raised concerns that the new measures would disproportionately harm startups, with the Coalition for a Digital Economy warning the plays “simply won’t work”.

Read more: Business groups blast new Ofcom powers to police social media

But Bakhurst played down these fears, saying Ofcom would not “hound” small businesses or looks to curtail the editorial freedom of news sites.

The online harms crackdown will be overseen by Melanie Dawes, who takes over as Ofcom chief executive next month following the departure of new John Lewis chair Sharon White.