Online Safety Act Network

Media literacy by design: a response to Ofcom's consultation


Alongside the hefty consultations launched since the Online Safety Act achieved Royal Assent, Ofcom have also recently been asking for views on proposed principles for “media literacy by design”

Under the Communications Act 2003, the regulator has an ongoing duty to promote media literacy. This consultation sets out some media literacy design principles to guide the interventions that online platforms might make to “help internet users engage with online services critically, safely and effectively”. These are grouped under three themes, focusing on how services can: 

  1. Become accountable for making media literacy a priority, and increase transparency surrounding the development and impact of media literacy intervention;
  2. Put user needs at the centre of the design process and ensure interventions are timely;
  3. Monitor and evaluate media literacy interventions on an ongoing basis.

There are many expert civil society organisations and charities who will be better able to assess the value and potential effectiveness of the principles Ofcom puts forward - should they have capacity, of course, given the myriad other consultation demands on those active in this space at present.

Our response to the consultation focused on a broader point in relation to the joining up of this work with Ofcom’s online safety regulation responsibilities. The first  principle - in the “priority, transparency and accountability” grouping - proposes that: 

Online services create a media literacy by design policy to promote critical and informed use of their product. Media literacy is a strategic priority in and of itself, with platforms publishing actions and aims with regards to media literacy. Services consider media literacy as part of their Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) or Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) and iterate them based on new findings and evidence.

Yet, looking in detail at the recent  Online Safety Act illegal harms consultation, published by Ofcom on 9 November 2023, (eg volume 4 on the codes of practice) there are very few mentions of media literacy, except at para 20.117 (user verification helping users distinguish between real and fake accounts). It seems to us to be a missed opportunity not to be working “media literacy by design” into the OSA codes of practice.

Disinformation is mentioned in the illegal harms consultation with regard to impersonation (eg in relation to fraud) and in the context of the new foreign interference offence. Again, it would seem to us that there is a space for some mitigating measures relating to media literacy here that would apply alongside the content moderation/takedown measures that are otherwise central to the codes.

If a judgement has been made by Ofcom that media literacy is not relevant to the codes relating to these duties – perhaps because they deal with illegal content so whether or not users can critically evaluate such content is irrelevant; it remains illegal – then we hope that Ofcom can confirm that a different approach will be taken with the codes and guidance relating to the OSA’s children’s duties, which are due to be consulted upon next Spring.