UK-based video-sharing platforms need to improve safety measures, says Ofcom

The regulator’s new report finds that advanced reading skills are needed to understand rules set by BitChute, Brand New Tube, OnlyFans, Snapchat, TikTok and Twitch – making them unsuitable for many users, including children. 

The report, Ofcom’s first year of video-sharing platform regulation, examines for the first time how easy it is for users to access and understand the terms and conditions set by VSPs. It concludes that many users may not fully understand what content is and isn’t allowed, and may not understand the consequences of breaking these rules. At the same time, content moderators working at VSPs do not always have the guidance and training they need to enforce the rules.

girl in white tank top using black tablet computer

Photo by Kelly Sikkema

Online safety is, of course, a major concern – especially where children are concerned. Ofcom regulates VSPs established in the UK, and platforms have responsibilities under the Communications Act 2003 such as to protect users from harmful material and under-18s from restricted material. The Online Safety Bill, expected to become law later this year, is also expected to inform the regulator’s broader approach. 

There’s some good news: the report lists examples of good practice such as that Snapchat, TikTok and Twitch all provide examples in their terms of service of a wide range different types of content that might be considered harmful to children and so is in breach of their rules. Twitch and TikTok are also clear about what happens to users who break rules. TikTok and Snapchat also have means to test the effectiveness of the guidance supplied to their moderators. 

But the general sense is that much more needs to be done to keep users – including children – safe. 

So what are the problems? One big issue is just how long the terms of service can be. At nearly 15,922 words, OnlyFans had the longest terms of service which adult users would take an estimated 64 minutes to read. The implication is surely that many users sign up without having read or understood the rules at all. 

Other VSPs did better but could still improve things: Twitch (6,678 words, 27 minutes), Snapchat (4,903 words, 20 minutes), TikTok (4,773 words. 19 minutes), Brand New Tube (2,492 words, 10 minutes) and BitChute (2,017 words, 8 minutes). 

But as well as the sheer length of these terms of service, there is also the issue of how difficult it is to understand what they mean. Ofcom applied a score to each based on the Flesch-Kincaid calculator of ‘reading ease.’ All but TikTok were judged, ‘difficult to read and best understood by high-school graduates.’  

Twitch’s terms of service were most difficult to read. Even TikTok, which was considered easiest to understand, required a level of comprehension higher than that of the youngest users allowed on the platform. 

Another concern was the use of ‘click wrap’ agreements by BitChute, Snapchat and TikTok, where acceptance of the terms and service is made implicit in signing up, without prompting or encouraging readers to actually read them.  

Things were better in the community guidelines supplied by each VSP. These set out rules in more concise and user-friendly terms, estimated to take between four and 11 minutes to read. Snapchat had the shortest such guidelines but they were also the hardest to read, with a reading level judged to be equivalent to university education. 

Jessica Zucker, Online Safety Policy Director at Ofcom, says: ‘Terms and conditions are fundamental to protecting people, including children, from harm when using social video sites and apps. That’s because the reporting of potentially harmful videos – and effective moderation of that content – can only work if there are clear and unambiguous rules underpinning the process. 

‘Our report found that lengthy, impenetrable and, in some cases, inconsistent terms drawn up by some UK video-sharing platforms risk leaving users and moderators in the dark. So today we’re calling on platforms to make improvements, taking account of industry good practice highlighted in our report.’

In related news:

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Almost all children now consuming video content online says Ofcom


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