Ofcom “needs powers to audit tech companies to prevent damage online”

The online security bill is strong enough to force tech companies to change their systems to better protect users, but audit powers to take a closer look at a site’s inner workings should be added. said the Information Commissioner.

Giving evidence to MPs and peers on the joint committee reviewing the bill, Elizabeth Denham said the proposals, which include significant fines and site blocks for failing to protect users, were strong enough to force businesses to change.

But she warned that Ofcom, the proposed regulator for the industry, would not be able to “get out of online mischief” and that other mechanisms were needed to change the systems and algorithms that help deliver content. damaging.

“I think the bill that we are talking about today, the bill that has been introduced, contains many provisions and an appropriate structure to be able to change the behavior of the largest online platforms, search engines and so on. ,” she said.

“And I think what’s good about the bill is that it contains both upstream regulatory interventions as well as enforcement interventions to deal with the worst types of behavior when behavior does change. not.

“Upstream interventions like transparency reports are really, really important. I think the risk assessments in the bill are really important, but also at the end of the day when the regulator needs to make changes and deter behavior, you have enforcement powers and actions. solid.

“I think we all know we’re not going to be able to get ourselves out of mischief online, but it’s really important to incorporate the kind of changes, structures and systems in businesses to reflect the values ​​of the community. “

Asked about the bill’s proposals to allow Ofcom to request information about the operation of a platform and its systems, in hopes of ending the era of “self-reporting Ms. Denham said this was a positive step but a more in-depth review through full audits could be more effective.

“I think the information gathering powers that are in the bill for Ofcom are important, but I also think they need to be bolstered with audit powers so that the regulator can look under the hood. “she said.

“To use an example from our own experience with the Age Appropriate Design Code – and, as you know, this is world-leading code – it starts to change systems, design and behavior of some of the biggest companies in the world, not just in the UK but internationally, so we’ve seen some really good changes.

“Because we (the ICO) have the power to audit, we can actually see what’s going on under the hood, under the hood – so I think the audit powers are really important. “

Asked by committee chairman Damian Collins, Ms Denham said she believed the current powers of the ICO were stronger than those proposed in the online security bill.

But the Information Commissioner, who is due to step down in late October, said the push for more regulation of the tech sector through legislation such as the UK Security Bill line, and its increased public debate, were already having a positive impact.

“I think the tide is starting to turn and companies are being watched in a way that they never have been before and some of them, I think, are making significant changes – not at all levels. , but they’re making changes, I think, not just because the laws are there, but because that’s what users expect, ”she said.

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