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House of Lords committee calls for creation of a digital authority to oversee regulation

The proposed regulatory framework would coordinate regulators, assess rules and make recommendations to respond to developments in digital services

A House of Lords committee has called for the creation of a “digital authority” to oversee the regulation of online services in the UK.

According to the Lords Communications Committee, digital rules are currently set out by multiple UK regulators, which leads to fragmentation, gaps and overlaps, with the response to public concern being “piecemeal and inadequate”.

The proposed digital authority would be tasked with complete oversight of the various UK regulators, regularly assess regulation and make recommendations on which additional powers are necessary to fill gaps.

“Self-regulation by online platforms is clearly failing and the current regulatory framework is out of date.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," said committee chairman Lord Gilbert of Panteg.

“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,” he said.

Last month, the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee highlighted the need to establish independent regulation and a compulsory code of ethics after Facebook “deliberately frustrated” an inquiry into the spread of fake news and disinformation online.

“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,” said Lord Gilbert.

Digital minister Margot James told the committee last November that the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport was likely to recommend the creation of some form of dedicated regulatory body for the internet.

The new digital authority would be guided by 10 principles to inform regulation around digital services. The principles include: accountability, so processes must be in place to ensure individuals and organisations are held to account for their actions; and policies and parity, meaning there should be the same level of protection online as offline.

The 10 principles the new digital authority would be based on

  • Parity: there should be the same level of protection online as offline
  • Accountability: processes must be in place so that individuals and organisations are held to account for their actions and policies
  • Transparency: powerful businesses and organisations operating in the digital world must be open to scrutiny
  • Openness: the internet must remain open to innovation and competition
  • Privacy: measures should be in place to protect the privacy of individuals
  • Ethical design: services must act in the interests of users and society
  • Recognition of childhood: the most vulnerable users of the internet should be protected
  • Respect for human rights and equality: the freedoms of expression and information online should be protected
  • Education and awareness-raising: people should be able to navigate the digital world safely
  • Democratic accountability, proportionality and be evidence-based

In addition, the report sets out recommendations for specific action in three main areas: online harms and a duty of care; ethical technology; and market concentration.

According to the committee, a duty of care should be imposed on online services that are openly available and be part of Ofcom’s expanded remit to address online harms. The report also recommends a new classification framework for online platforms, as well as more effective moderation systems.

On ethical technology, the report calls for “maximum privacy and safety settings” to allow users to have greater control over the collection of their data, with businesses being required to explain how they use personal data and what their algorithms do.

“Self-regulation by online platforms is clearly failing and the current regulatory framework is out of date. Our proposals will ensure that rights are protected online as they are offline”
Lord Gilbert of Panteg, Lords Communications Committee

The report also recommends that the Information Commissioner’s Office is empowered to conduct impact-based audits where risks associated with using algorithms are greatest.

Last year, information commissioner Elizabeth Denham’s investigation into the use of data in elections and campaigns found “a disturbing disregard for voters’ personal privacy”. In her report into the use of data analytics in political campaigns, she stressed that companies such as Facebook “should be subject to stricter regulation and oversight”.

On other specific actions set out under the ethical recommendations, the report also calls for the publication of an annual data transparency statement by organisations detailing forms they are generating or purchasing behavioural data from third parties and how they are stored, for how long, and how they are used and transferred.

Areas related to market concentration cited in the report highlight the power retained by a handful of companies operating online platforms and how data portability could help address the issue, though more interoperability would be required.

That section of the report also recommends specific action around the potential creation of a public-interest test for data-driven mergers and acquisitions. It also cites that regulation should take the inherent power of intermediaries into account.

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