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Ofcom says government should lead on internet regulation

Representatives from the telecoms regulator tell House of Lords that the government should build a framework for internet regulation that other bodies can follow and enforce

Internet regulation would be more effective if the government developed legislation that an independent body could enforce, representatives of Ofcom have told a House of Lords committee.

At a meeting of the House of Lords Communications Committee, representatives of Ofcom and the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) discussed their roles in regulating the internet in the modern digital economy, as well as what needs to be done to ensure that the internet serves the public better.

Drawing on experience from Ofcom’s work on regulation with the BBC, Kevin Bakhurst, group director, content and media policy at Ofcom, said this project was a “useful blueprint” for how the UK could begin thinking about regulating the internet.

Bakhurst said there were a “number of principles you could set as a framework” for the areas of the internet that needed independence or regulation, and that it was the government’s responsibility to create the framework.

“Ofcom exists because of parliament and we take out duties from parliament,” he said. “Regulation only works if it has statutory backing and has a clear remit from parliament in the UK, and then has a trusted independent body that will interpret that and set a clear set of rules.”

Although Ofcom’s core responsibilities are to ensure effective competition in the broadcast market and consumer protection, it works with a number of other regulators, and Yih-Choung Teh, Ofcom group director, strategy and research, said there were a number of “mechanisms” in place to encourage collaboration and communication between these bodies for consumer protection.

“There are a number of different ways where I feel collaboration is key to ensuring that different regulators can bring their expertise to generate the best outcome,” said Teh.

But Bakhurst admitted there was a crossover between the areas controlled by regulatory bodies, and that some areas were not controlled at all. The rules governing what regulators could and could not control on the internet were in their “early days”, he said.

“Much of the online content and social media is simply not covered by anybody at the moment,” said Bakhurst.

One of the issues that Ofcom identified in previous research was the gap in regulation between broadcasters and those who produce online content, such as streaming services or social media sites, he said. “Self-evidently. broadcasting is very different from online to start with, because of the sheer volume of material and the sources.”

Although Ofcom issues broadcasting licences for about 2,000 companies, those companies are responsible for the material that is used on those platforms, but the same cannot be said for social media, said Bakhurst.

“Broadcasters are held to the highest standards,” he added. “The protections around online content are obviously designed at the moment around terrorist content, around protecting young people.”

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Broadcasters are keen to see this gap closed, said Bakhurst. Media literacy plays a role, and could play a bigger role, in consumption of online content, he said, pointing out that many consumers already understand that the content they consume from broadcasters is “highly regulated” and that online content “has a different set of rules”.

But whatever the government decides, regulation or otherwise, it will have to be flexible and reactive because of the pace of technology change affecting the online world, said Bakhurst.

Andrea Coscelli, CEO of the CMA, said there should be more concern about the gaps in addressing known issues on the internet, as opposed to the overlap in regulatory bodies’ responsibilities.

“There is a lot of ongoing coordination,” he said. “What worries me more now is potential gaps in the regulation, as opposed to a lack of bodies coordinating.”

Although the CMA tried to look into these gaps, said Coscelli, responsibility for identifying these issues “strictly speaking should probably sit more in government”, so that the CMA and other bodies could then “add value” to government decisions.

Once recommendations were made and accepted, the CMA could be involved in implementing the next steps, said Coscelli. “We don’t see our role as ending with the delivery of a report.”

Technology adoption across all areas had been a challenge to regulate, he added, and regulation of the internet and online content was more difficult because of issues surrounding freedom of speech and considerations around data protection and privacy in a social media-driven world.

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