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Online safety role leads to Ofcom hiring frenzy

UK comms regulator Ofcom is set to increase its headcount by around 50% in order to police the UK online environment.

Scott Bicheno

January 9, 2024

3 Min Read

We know this thanks to a fairly accommodating exclusive from the FT, which got limited access to the senior ‘online safety’ team, consisting largely of former Big Tech in-house censors. It informs us that Ofcom, which had a headcount of around 1,000 in the middle of 2022, has since hired 350 people ‘dedicated to tackling online safety’ and intends to hire at least 100 more.

The FT reports that ‘Ofcom has been poaching staff from Big Tech companies’ but goes on to suggest that major job cuts at those companies have made many grateful for the employment opportunities offered by Ofcom. The quoted Big Tech defectors all indicated that the power to censor at even greater scale than their previous roles enabled was a major reason for them joining Ofcom.

“Those still motivated by online safety and proportionality see Ofcom as the alternative,” said Jessica Zucker, who joined Ofcom from Meta as Director of Online Safety Policy in June 2022 (well before the Online Safety Act became law, it should be noted), in the FT piece. “You could do it for one company, or you can do it for an entire industry.”

The main stated aim of the Online Safety Act is to tackle illegal content, which it was reasonable to assume would already have been covered by pre-existing legislation, and especially to protect children from online harm. The latter is a laudable aim that fully justifies dedicated resource, but the concern has always been that it will be used as a Trojan horse to empower Ofcom, and thus indirectly the UK government, to censor otherwise legal online content more generally.

There’s almost no limit to the types of online speech that this new Ofcom team could unilaterally determine to be ‘harmful’ and it now has the power to compel online platforms to censor such speech, or else. You also have to wonder what the sudden transformation of the regulator, such that a third of its staff are now dedicated to censorship, means for its legacy responsibilities.

“It does show Ofcom transitioning from regulating the ways that we send data from place to place (fixed and mobile networks and broadcast networks) increasingly to whether the data is appropriate,” said William Webb, CTO at Access Partnership and a previous Director of Technology at Ofcom for over seven years, in an email exchange with Telecoms.com. Webb has recently published a book titled Emperor Ofcom's New Clothes.

“Perhaps this is a symptom of networks broadly being ‘done’ - we're getting to the stage where there's limited data growth and networks are mostly adequate (other than rural areas, etc). Perhaps Ofcom should become OfCon (Office of Content)? But I agree that there is lots of scope for mission creep, and the risk-averse nature of regulation will tend towards over-reach here.”

It seems telling that Ofcom chose to collaborate with the FT to big-up its censorship hiring frenzy. Clearly Ofcom Chief Exec Melanie Dawes is relishing this extra power and responsibility. “The expectations are very high, but it’s as quick as I’ve ever seen a regulator act,” she told the FT. If the UK’s children are significantly more protected from online harm as a result, then that will be cause for celebration, but it’s not clear if there are any safeguards in place to prevent potentially tyrannical mission creep. Who watches the watchmen?

About the Author(s)

Scott Bicheno

As the Editorial Director of Telecoms.com, Scott oversees all editorial activity on the site and also manages the Telecoms.com Intelligence arm, which focuses on analysis and bespoke content.
Scott has been covering the mobile phone and broader technology industries for over ten years. Prior to Telecoms.com Scott was the primary smartphone specialist at industry analyst Strategy Analytics’. Before that Scott was a technology journalist, covering the PC and telecoms sectors from a business perspective.
Follow him @scottbicheno

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