On 9 November, Ofcom published its illegal harms consultation - 1700 pages of it - the first of three main phases of consultations to get the Online Safety Act regime up and running.
Inevitably, the length of the consultation has provoked much commentary and some angst amongst those with an interest in this agenda. It is - undoubtedly - long. It will require time-consuming and detailed analysis by those who wish to respond to it. Nearly two weeks on, anyone with a hot take on what it means and whether it works is most likely chancing their arm based on a cursory speed-read. As some commentators have suggested (for example, here and here), the impact on smaller and less experienced stakeholders - who will need to engage as much as the big platforms do - could well be negative.
We have no hot take nor initial analysis to share here yet. We are taking our time working through the detail and will have more to come soon. But there is no doubt that many civil society organisations - like many small businesses - may well still be procrastinating and/or wondering where they will carve out the time to engage.
That’s why this network has been set up: we will be publishing commentary and analysis in the coming weeks to help civil society organisations - both large and small - orientate their responses and engage as constructively as they can. Our initial engagement with many such organisations has indicated that this will be very welcome.
If we take a step back, this is not an unexpected situation. Ofcom has its work cut out as it starts preparing for OSA implementation. But there is a difference between a document that is complex (the Act) and one that is merely long, which the consultation undoubtedly is. Ofcom has had a long time to prepare for this moment and it’s to their credit that they have attempted, with this first tranche of publications, to set out in one place the underpinnings of the OSA regime along with the details on the illegal content duties - with an admirably clear summary document sitting alongside it to help stakeholders orientate themselves. It seems likely that much of this framework – for example, the approach to governance – will be relevant to the children’s duties as well; the consultation on those duties will follow in spring 2024.
The challenge for Ofcom is what happens next. Many civil society organisations and campaigners played a significant role, over many years, in the development of the Online Safety Act and fought hard to secure many of the vital protections it now contains. Meaningful and continued engagement with them by Ofcom - and indeed by DSIT, who themselves have a post-Royal Assent consultation programme to run, starting with the super complaints proposals last week - will be vital to ensure they can input their expertise and, crucially, their evidence to inform the successful implementation of the regime. This engagement will have to be sustained and repeated over the coming years and there is inevitably going to be an asymmetry between the volume of this work and the available resources of many of the stakeholders with an interest in it.
But there’s a resolve amongst organisations in our network to make this work - we’ve waited long enough for it - and to work with, rather than against, Ofcom as they bring the regime to life. We strongly believe it’s vital that the voices of those who have campaigned so hard for this legislation continue to be heard as loudly as those who are - and will remain - opposed to it.