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Online Safety Act may take years to have noticeable impact despite public’s high expectations

21 February 2024

  • Committee calls on regulator to let members of public know outcome of complaints
  • Ofcom faces significant challenges in regulating overseas providers with much still to do to implement effective regulatory regime

Years may pass before the Online Safety Act (OSA) makes a noticeable difference to people’s online experience. In a report published today, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) finds that regulator Ofcom has made a good start in preparing for its new role protecting citizens from online harm – but questions remain over how it will manage public expectations for what the regulatory regime will achieve, with the regulator unable to act on individual complaints and overseas providers in particular posing a significant challenge.

The inquiry heard that there could be 100,000+ service providers falling within Ofcom’s new scope, most of them small businesses and/or based overseas. Ensuring compliance for the vast majority of providers will rely on automated processes not yet in place, which the PAC calls on Ofcom to urgently finalise. The regulator also recognises that some providers may choose not to engage with it, or be hard to contact for many smaller overseas companies, and there is a lack of clarity over its planned approach in these cases.

Ofcom prepared well for its new responsibilities, and moved swiftly to implement the OSA when it became law in October 2023. But the PAC warns of potential public disappointment with the new regulatory regime, which will not be fully implemented until 2026, if people cannot quickly see improvements to their online experience or understand how complaints are acted on. With Ofcom able only to take action where there are systemic concerns about a service provider, the report recommends it develop a mechanism for letting people know what impact their complaint has had.

Once fully operational, the new regime is expected to be self-financing, with set-up and ongoing costs to be covered by fees levied on industry. However, the PAC’s inquiry heard that Ofcom has yet to establish the details of how the fee regime will work, with the report highlighting that Ofcom may not recover all its set-up costs until 2032-33.

While a lack of information was provided on the scale of fees for industry, Ofcom stated they will aim to be proportionate, fair and administratively effective, while recognising the challenge that more time may be spent regulating smaller and risky companies, which would be paid for by larger, more compliant companies.

Chair's comment

Dame Meg Hillier MP, Chair of the Committee, said:

“Expectations are understandably high for firm guardrails in the hitherto largely unregulated online world. We know that around two thirds of UK children and adults say they experienced at least one potential online harm in a month in 2022, according to Ofcom, which is to be commended for how swiftly it has moved to take on its new responsibilities.  It must now continue to be proactively frank with the public over what the Online Safety Act does and does not empower it to do, lest confidence in the new regime be swiftly undermined.

Firm detail on how fees for industry, enforcement, automated monitoring and a range of other issues must now be locked in. No other country has introduced equivalent online safety regulation. Ofcom now needs to capitalise on its early progress. It must also accelerate its coordination with other regulators both at home and overseas, in the recognition that it is at the forefront of a truly global effort to strike the right balance between freedom and safety online.”

Further information

Image: CCO