Insights Online Safety: Ofcom publishes research agenda


Ofcom has published its research agenda for online safety, setting out areas of interest that will “inform and underpin” its work.

The agenda highlights four themes that Ofcom is particularly interested in researching: (1) understanding user activity and behaviour; (2) understanding online risk and harm; (3) understanding service design and characteristics; and (4) understanding safety measures and technologies.

Under the heading of “understanding user activity and behaviour”, the document explains that Ofcom is not just concerned with learning about users’ experiences online, but also what drives and influences the behaviour of the businesses that it regulates. By understanding “how services are designed, how users behave, and how harm manifests online”, Ofcom says that it will be better placed to shape policy decisions and, in turn, improve services for users. It is particularly interested in how the characteristics of certain users might affect their experiences online. For example, understanding the experience of children online: what content they are exposed to and how frequently; how to measure the harmful effect of certain content; the experiences on services designed solely to be used by children (so-called ‘walled gardens’); and understanding the relationship between exposure to harmful content and children’s wellbeing. But Ofcom’s interest is not only limited to children. It also wants to understand whether characteristics of vulnerable users – such as the neurodiverse – might make them more vulnerable online and whether measures to reduce the risk of harm can be tailored for such groups.

The second theme identified by Ofcom is ‘understanding online risk and harm’. To that end, Ofcom will undertake research into, for example, what characteristics might be associated with those that disseminate hate speech and terrorist content online, and whether measures could be taken to mitigate that dissemination. Disinformation is also a central concern of Ofcom, and it intends to investigate the techniques and tactics of disinformation campaigns, as well as consider whether mis/disinformation becomes more prevalent in times of crisis. There will also be research into: methodologies used by fraudsters; how gender-based abuse is manifested online and what can be done to tackle it; addressing means to tackle child sexual abuse and exploitation; identifying emerging harms to children; and the relationship between gaming services and hate speech or extremism.

‘Understanding service design and characteristics’ is the third theme. On this subject, Ofcom intends to conduct research into matters such as identifying emerging functionalities within online services and assessing the extent to which they might increase the risk of harm to users. Similarly, it is interested in understanding the different business models of services or their approaches to designing algorithms and, in turn, how these might affect users’ experiences or increase the risk of harm.

Finally, the fourth theme is ‘understanding safety measures and technologies’. Ofcom states that it is important for it to “continue learning how design of safety measures on services can impact their effectiveness at keeping users safe online”. This not only includes investigating new methodologies used by services to improve safety and whether such measures might have unintended consequences on users’ experiences, but also Ofcom developing analytical techniques and metrics to evaluate safety measures. Finally, the agenda draws attention to Ofcom’s intention to examine the impact of generative AI on different types of harmful content (and on different types of users), as well as the effectiveness of parental controls.

More information can be found here.