Lords demand 'digital supervisor' to govern tech regulation

Night time shot of Westminster or the Houses of Parliament

A House of Lords' committee has mounted pressure on the government to establish a digital supervisory body to reign in the worst tendencies of the tech industry.

A new public authority, guided by ten regulatory principles, must be set up to instil a new culture of ethics into the design of online services, such as social media platforms, according to the Lords' communications committee.

The Lords' 85-page report took nine months to compile and was published less than two weeks before the government is due to release its own proposals in the form of an 'online harms' white paper.

It claims that a dozen UK regulators, including Ofcom and the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO), have partial remit over tech firms like Facebook and Google. But there's a marked absence of a single body with complete oversight of these companies.

This analysis, alongside an acceptance that 'self-regulation' has failed, means digital regulation is highly fragmented, with several gaps and overlaps.

Online harm, in particular, ranging from fast-spreading extremist material to content affecting children's mental health, is an area that big tech companies have "failed to adequately tackle" themselves.

"The impact of technology, the pace and change that comes with it, and the size and scale and speed of the tech companies meant in our view that we had an analogue regulatory regime for a digital era," committee chair Lord Gilbert told IT Pro.

"That's why we say there should be a powerful Digital Authority that is not yet another regulator, but one which pulls together all the existing regulatory work and makes sure things are being dealt with."

"[The organisation would] build a British centre of expertise so that we've got the skills required in the regulatory regime to understand what's really happening inside the tech companies, and what they're doing.

"Really importantly, [it needs to] have a horizon scanning capacity, so public policy making and regulation is looking toward the future and the issues that may arise as tech develops, rather than just responding to newspaper headlines."

'Horizon scanning' a fragmented landscape

Establishing a new industry regulator is not a novel idea, with both the Labour Party and the House of Commons' Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) select committee each demanding variations of this.

But the House of Lords has called for the creation of a pan-public sector organisation that would oversee existing regulators, fill any regulatory gaps, and feed into establishing new rules and powers where necessary.

Dubbed the 'Digital Authority', this body would co-ordinate the existing regulatory landscape, make recommendations, and report frequently to a joint committee of MPs and Lords.

"Policy-makers across different sectors have not responded adequately to changes in the digital world," the report said. "The Digital Authority should be empowered to instruct regulators to address specific problems or areas.

"In cases where this is not possible because problems are not within the remit of any regulator, the Digital Authority should advise the Government and Parliament that new or strengthened legal powers are needed."

This approach has been devised in direct response to an emerging challenge that regulators face; of the friction between their existing remits and powers created in an analogue age, and the increasingly online-centric world.

The report has recommended this first step of establishing a 'Digital Authority' in order to consolidate and co-ordinate the remit of the ICO, Ofcom and the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA).

The body will then review these regulators' existing powers, and may in the future recommend establishing an entirely new regulator.

'Self-regulation has failed'

Among the ten principles guiding any new regulatory body include parity, accountability, transparency, openness, privacy, and ethical design.

More substantive elements are recognition of childhood, respect for human rights and equality, education and awareness-raising, and democratic accountability, proportionality and evidence-based approach.

These are principles the House of Lords select committee feels tech companies have not been abiding by in the digital products and services they design. This partially informs an understanding that self-regulation, where companies police themselves, has failed.

Lord Gilbert added that there wasn't a particular instance that proved to him self-regulation had failed. Rather, it was the idea that issues such as dealing with online harm and respecting data rights, were so broad and significant that they naturally demanded a co-regulatory or regulatory approach.

"There's a job for parliament here," he added. "Parliament has got a job, not to interfere day-to-day in individual regulatory cases, but to set societal expectations so that regulators have a sense of priorities."

Deconcentrating power

Meanwhile, Mark Zuckerberg's stated intention to merge Facebook, Whatsapp and Instagram is exactly the kind of consolidation the report has raised a red flag against.

Witnesses giving evidence raised concerns that traditional rules around competition and monopolisation, which the CMA adjudicates over, were not effective for a digital age.

The report outlined steps the government should take to create and enforce a public interest test for data-driven mergers and acquisitions. This will prevent large companies from becoming "data monopolies".

The CMA can currently intervene in cases relevant to media plurality and national security, but the report said this should be extended to include mergers in the context of digital markets as well.

Moreover, these companies effectively serve as "gatekeepers for the internet" comparable to utilities like gas and water. Special obligations, therefore, must be drawn up to ensure they act fairly to users, to other companies and behave in the interests of wider society.

A DCMS spokesperson said the government will release its forthcoming online harms white paper during Winter this year.

Keumars Afifi-Sabet

Keumars Afifi-Sabet is a writer and editor that specialises in public sector, cyber security, and cloud computing. He first joined ITPro as a staff writer in April 2018 and eventually became its Features Editor. Although a regular contributor to other tech sites in the past, these days you will find Keumars on LiveScience, where he runs its Technology section.