The UK Just Made a Massive Move to Regulate Sites Like YouTube

The UK government plans to put Ofcom, which oversees traditional TV broadcasts, in charge of keeping sites like YouTube, Twitch and TikTok compliant

Image by Chris Stokel-Walker

Last month we warned regulation is coming to sites like YouTube — and now, regulation will soon be upon UK users of social networks. The Telegraph reports that Ofcom, the current British television regulator, will be tasked with making sure that platforms like YouTube protect users and don’t host “inappropriate” content.

The installation of Ofcom as the initial regulator with oversight of social media firms was predicted by Damian Collins, the head of the UK House of Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sports committee, when I spoke to him back in June.

And it provides the UK with a first-mover advantage in order to shape the style of global regulation of sites like YouTube, TikTok and Twitch.

As we have previously reported, it seems likely there will be a lowest-common-denominator set of regulation worldwide, with multinational companies working across different jurisdictions deciding to try and standardise their rules so there are as few variations of their platform across countries as possible. (There will undoubtedly be exceptions in the case of places like Russia, which over the weekend asked YouTube to stop sharing videos taken at opposition rallies and protests against the government.)

That the UK — which The Telegraph reports will hand power to Ofcom by September 2020, subject to legislation passing through parliament — will formalize its rules first allows them to set the standard.

Those standards have been signposted in the government’s online harms white paper, published in April, which, amongst other things, included potential provisions that would require tech companies to disclose more clearly how their algorithms work in order to “establish that companies are adequately fulfilling the duty of care”. Any company found in breach of eight key areas Ofcom will be overseeing, including robust age verification systems, monitoring videos and providing ways to flag inappropriate content, can be fined up to five percent of their revenue or in extreme measures, see their service suspended or restricted.

A YouTube spokesperson declined to comment on the news.

“This directive is an important opportunity to regulate social networks with user-generated video or livestream functions as early as next year,” says Andy Burrows, head of child safety online policy at UK children’s charity the NSPCC. “The immediacy of livestreaming can make children more vulnerable to being coerced by abusers, who may capture the footage, share it and use it as blackmail.

“Crucially, this is a real chance to bring in legislative protections ahead of the forthcoming online harms bill,” says Burrows, “and to finally hold sites to account if they put children at risk.”

There are questions about whether Ofcom is best suited to take on a role regulating such as massive site as YouTube — where there are 500 hours of footage uploaded every minute and the top 5,000 YouTube channels are watched five billion times per day, according to YouTube video measurement company Tubular Labs.

The regulator has fewer than 1,000 employees, one-tenth the number of moderators employed by YouTube that are devoted solely to the task of trying to identify inappropriate videos and stop them from being surfaced to users. (It’s also worth noting that, given the number of scandals around inappropriate videos in the last few years, those 10,000 employees are not nearly enough to stem the tide.)

“I think it’s the right first step,” says Collins. “Ofcom already has good experience as a content regulator and setting up a completely new body would take too long.”

It’s also a new area for the organization to investigate — and one that it may not be best suited to.

Regardless, times are changing in the online video space. And as we reported just last week, now the threat of regulatory oversight has been made real, one group of professionals is likely to see an uptick in work: the next big growth sector will be outside standards and practices experts, making sure that the content uploaded bylarger channels who can afford their expertise never gets to the point of an Ofcom complaint.

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