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Ofcom jumps the gun with chief censor appointment

UK comms regulator Ofcom has anticipated the passing of the controversial Online Safety Bill by creating a new division to police online content.

Gill Whitehead (pictured) will join Ofcom as Group Director, Online Safety in April of next year. That’s around the time the latest version of the Online Safety Bill is expected to pass through Parliament. Ofcom says the law will hand it ‘a remit and powers to help create a safer life online’, part of which will involve ‘regulations that will hold tech firms to account for prioritising their users’ safety.’

Earlier this week the government unveiled tweaks to the bill, which had raised widespread concerns about state censorship of online speech. The tweaks did little to allay the fears of free speech campaigners since it would make online platforms legally compelled to enforce their own terms and conditions, effectively outsourcing the power of the state to them. If anything, this new stipulation will result in even greater censorship than previous versions of the bill.

“Being online brings huge benefits, but right now it also comes with risk,” said Whitehead. “Over time we can achieve a safer life online for everyone, and I’ve been impressed at how quickly Ofcom has developed its skills and brought in talent from across the tech sector. It will be a real privilege for me to lead those teams.”

“Gill is a terrific appointment for Ofcom as we gear up for taking on our online safety duties in the spring,” said Ofcom Chief Exec Melanie Dawes. “She brings experience of expert leadership in data and technology, spanning the public and private sectors, including senior roles at the one of the world’s largest tech firms. Ofcom is continuing to get ready by hiring more tech and data experts, and developing our approach to enforcing these new laws.”

To be fair, Whitehead does seem very well qualified, significantly more so than her boss. She joins from the Digital Regulation Cooperation Forum, where she coordinated the digital efforts of the Competition and Markets Authority, Financial Services Authority, Information Commissioner’s Office and Ofcom. Before that she lead data analytics teams at Google UK, having previously been at Channel 4.

While we regret the creation of this position while the Online Safety Bill remains so censorious, maybe having such an experienced person as the UK’s chief digital censor will mean we have a fighting chance of these powers being used with discretion. Hopefully Whitehead understands that heavy censorship of the big online platforms is not only wrong in principle, but will fail to improve safety as it significantly increases the incentive for people to see alternative channels to communicate.

 

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