Government hears 'urgent case' for new online regulation

09 Mar 2019  |  David Pidgeon 
Government hears 'urgent case' for new online regulation

"Piecemeal and inadequate" responses to the failings of online platforms has today seen a House of Lords committee call for new regulatory oversight.

In the wake of recent child safety scandals at both Google-owned YouTube and Facebook-owned Instagram, The House of Lords Communications Committee said today that the UK needed an "overarching regulatory framework" so that the services in the digital world are held accountable to an "enforceable" set of shared principles.

In its report Regulating in a Digital World, the committee notes that over a dozen UK regulators have a remit covering online but there is no body which has complete oversight.

As a result, "regulation of the digital environment is fragmented, with gaps and overlaps," the report states, adding that big tech companies have "failed to adequately tackle" online harms.

“The Government should not just be responding to news headlines but looking ahead so that the services that constitute the digital world can be held accountable to an agreed set of principles," said the chairman of the committee, Lord Gilbert of Panteg.

“The Government should not just be responding to news headlines but looking ahead so that the services that constitute the digital world can be held accountable to an agreed set of principles.

“Self-regulation by online platforms is clearly failing and the current regulatory framework is out of date. The evidence we heard made a compelling and urgent case for a new approach to regulation. Without intervention, the largest tech companies are likely to gain ever more control of technologies which extract personal data and make decisions affecting people's lives.

"Our proposals will ensure that rights are protected online as they are offline while keeping the internet open to innovation and creativity, with a new culture of ethical behaviour embedded in the design of service.”

The Committee recommends a new 'Digital Authority', guided by ten principles to inform regulation of the digital world.

They include accountability, transparency, respect for privacy and freedom of expression. The committee said the principles will help the industry, regulators, the Government and users work towards a common goal of making the internet a better and more respectful environment.

"If rights are infringed, those responsible should be held accountable in a fair and transparent way," it said.

The recommendations in full

Online harms and a duty of care

  • A duty of care should be imposed on online services which host and curate content which can openly be uploaded and accessed by the public. Given the urgent need to address online harms, Ofcom’s remit should expand to include responsibility for enforcing the duty of care.
  • Online platforms should make community standards clearer through a new classification framework akin to that of the British Board of Film Classification. Major platforms should invest in more effective moderation systems to uphold their community standards.

Ethical technology

  • Users should have greater control over the collection of personal data. Maximum privacy and safety settings should be the default.
  • Data controllers and data processors should be required to publish an annual data transparency statement detailing which forms of behavioural data they generate or purchase from third parties, how they are stored, for how long, and how they are used and transferred.
  • The Government should empower the Information Commissioner’s Office to conduct impact-based audits where risks associated with using algorithms are greatest. Businesses should be required to explain how they use personal data and what their algorithms do.

Market concentration

  • The modern internet is characterised by the concentration of market power in a small number of companies which operate online platforms. Greater use of data portability might help, but this will require more interoperability.
  • The Government should consider creating a public-interest test for data-driven mergers and acquisitions.
  • Regulation should recognise the inherent power of intermediaries.
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