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Government considering dedicated internet regulator, says digital minister

An upcoming white paper is likely to set out proposals for an internet regulator, a House of Lords committee has been told

Digital minister Margot James has told the House of Lords Communications Committee that the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) is likely to recommend the creation of some form of dedicated regulatory body for the internet in the next few months.

Giving evidence to the ongoing Lords inquiry on internet regulation, James said that at the moment, some aspects of online activity were regulated by a number of different bodies, such as telecoms regulator Ofcom, the Advertising Standards Agency (ASA) and the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), and this approach was no longer viable.

“There has to date been a reliance on existing regulators to apply their work online, but because the online environment presents several unique challenges, it is felt there is too much of a gap in the regulatory armoury, which is allowing swathes of online activity to proceed with very light-touch regulation, and in some cases no regulation at all,” said James.

Having published a green paper on internet safety last year, DCMS is currently working on a white paper on the subject of tackling “online harms”, which is set to be published in the next few months.

“We fully expect that to be followed by legislation as soon as the parliamentary timetable permits,” James told the committee.

The Lords convened its inquiry on internet regulation in April 2018, at the height of widespread uproar surrounding the activities of private companies such as Cambridge Analytica and its alleged abuse of personal data to influence the outcome of the UK’s EU referendum and the US presidential election of 2016.

To date, the inquiry has received both written and oral evidence from a number of stakeholders. In October, Ofcom’s group director of content and media policy, Kevin Bakhurst, took a similar line to James, saying the rules governing what online activities regulators could and could not act to control were not at all clear.

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

Read more about online safety

James said that, ultimately, the government wanted to improve people’s safety and security online on the basis that what is illegal offline should be illegal online.

Any measures introduced in the future will set clear online safety expectations to protect users from harmful behaviour and criminality, she said, while at the same time taking steps to ensure that the UK’s growing technology industry was not limited in its ability to innovate and grow.

James suggested that laying down clear policy on online regulation would actually result in a more positive commercial environment for the UK’s technology industry, adding: “I don’t see a contradiction between the two.”

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