(Bloomberg) — Melanie Dawes will soon be in charge of regulating social media in Britain. But as a result of online trolling, the chief executive officer of watchdog Ofcom almost never uses Twitter Inc., one of the most prominent platforms under her watch.
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Their experiences, including being targeted by a prominent conspiracy theorist, echo of Echo Ofcom research showing that most British people have had “potentially harmful” encounters online, such as bullying, fraud Exposure to posts promoting attempted, or suicide.
“I decided it wasn’t something that was going to be worth it, to be honest,” Dawes said of Twitter and other social media platforms in an interview. “There are many people in public life, including many women in public life, who have had worse times than me.”
Britain is preparing to introduce a controversial and sweeping new law designed to protect the public. The Online Safety Bill has taken five years and six Conservative Party culture secretaries to draft, and gives Dawes and Ofcom significant new powers.
Bill’s development career began several years before Dawes, a 56-year-old civil servant, joined Ofcom. When it was first introduced, she was the senior-most bureaucrat in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, which she became after a 15-year stint in the UK Treasury.
As such, his personal experiences did not influence the formulation or development of the law. But his firsthand knowledge of the toxic material circulating on social media would make him a more informed auditor once it is passed by Britain’s parliament and received royal assent.
Pending parliamentary approval, the Online Safety Bill gives Ofcom the power to seek information from social media and search engine companies about how they are dealing with illegal and other so-called harmful content. Heavy fines and criminal charges await those who do not comply with senior managers. The latter threat has fueled speculation that Silicon Valley bosses like Mark Zuckerberg could face jail time.
Dawes said that senior managers nominated by Ofcom would be more likely to be targeted, as is the case in the UK banking sector. That said, former British bank CEO Barclays plc Jess Staley was fined £642,430 in 2018 for failures under those rules.
The law will be a primary topic of conversation when Dawes visits the US later this year to meet with tech company executives. Although intended to make CEOs and other leaders more accountable for removing illegal and harmful content from their platforms, the Online Safety Bill also includes:
Require age verification on all websites that host pornography
Ways to deal with anonymous abuse and unwanted contact on social media
Criminalization of so called cyber flashing
Need to report child sexual abuse material to the UK’s National Crime Agency
Read more: UK legislates to prosecute owners in Big Tech crackdown
West Coast founders shouldn’t expect a conservative culture clash between themselves and a buttoned-down British bureaucrat when Dawes visits – the CEO often walks around barefoot in Ofcom’s riverside London office while Nick Clegg , Britain’s former deputy prime minister and now Meta Platforms Inc.’s head of global affairs, still favors the suit.
But they should anticipate hearing a simple message, she says: “Too many platforms prioritize growth and revenue over security.”
Ofcom plans to publish how and when the complex Online Security Bill will go into effect in the coming weeks. Ministers have given the regulator an additional £89 million ($107 million) budget to set up their new duties over the next two years. It will employ about 340 additional people; Ofcom already has about 1,000 employees overseeing Britain’s television, broadband and postal services.
That growing influence has dragged the watchdog into political controversy. In 2021, Prime Minister Boris Johnson asked Paul Dacre, the right-wing former editor of the Daily Mail newspaper, to preside over it and, in Dacre’s words, “appoint your own chief executive.” That clear plan eventually fell apart.
“We have always been acting independently,” Dawes said, refusing to comment on any political specifics. “But it is certainly the case that everything we do is very interesting politically.”
Dawes said that because technology is advancing so rapidly, the online safety bill is specific and results-focused rather than prescriptive. A recent example is the live-streamed mass shooting in Buffalo, New York, the broadcast of which was also possible after an action in the wake of the 2019 live-streamed massacre in Christchurch, New Zealand.
“We’re thinking about whether to take it forward with different companies,” Dawes said. “International conversations about raising standards here may be another route to take to really try to stop this kind of material from becoming so readily available.”
In another example of how regulators are trying to avoid a global fragmentation of regulations, Ofcom is working with the World Economic Forum to develop global principles for online safety by design, Dawes said.
Ultimately, an always-on goal means success will be hard to define.
“It’s hard to say whether we’ll see clear trends in the data, or anything like that,” Dawes said. “For me, success is really about being confident that security in the boardroom is being taken seriously, and that product designers, engineers, really have an understanding of what they need to do when they are designing new services. instead of later when we’re trying to fix problems that have gone down the line.”
“It may sound normal,” she said, “but to me cultural change is the thing that’s most important.”
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