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UK digital regulators set out plans to strengthen cooperation

Digital Regulation Cooperation Forum outlines plans for the coming year, marking a shift towards a more collaborative regulatory approach

A forum of UK regulators with remits over different aspects of the digital economy has outlined its priorities for the coming year, which include developing joined-up regulatory approaches and building up shared skills and capabilities.

The Digital Regulation Cooperation Forum (DRCF) – formed in July 2020 to strengthen the working relationships between the regulators and establish a greater level of cooperation – consists of the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) and the Office of Communications (Ofcom).

Published on 10 March 2021, the DRCF’s workplan for the next year sets out a roadmap for how the three regulators will increase the scope and scale of their cooperation. This will involve pooling expertise and resources, working together on digital regulatory matters of mutual interest, and annually reporting on the results of their collaboration.

Since the DRCF was formed, the UK government has officially confirmed that Ofcom will oversee and enforce a duty of care for online harms on internet companies and technology platforms, having the power to levy General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR)-style fines of up to 10% of global turnover for breaches of this duty.

The government has also since announced that a Digital Markets Unit (DMU) will be established within the CMA, which is being tasked with writing and enforcing a new code of practice for tech giants.

According to the DRCF, its roadmap will help the regulators prepare for these new responsibilities, as well as set out how their regulatory approach will be coordinated.

“Online services are fundamental to how we interact with the world around us,” said Melanie Dawes, chief executive at Ofcom. “We want to ensure that people continue to enjoy the many benefits that these innovative platforms and technologies offer, while having peace of mind that they are protected against the possible harms and risks.

“As we ready ourselves to take on new responsibilities to regulate online safety, today’s action plan sets out how, through the DRCF, we will strengthen our ties with the CMA and the ICO. Together, we will drive a coherent approach to online regulation – for the good of internet users and the companies that serve them.”

The roadmap comprises three priority areas: responding strategically to industry and technological developments; developing joined-up regulatory approaches; and building shared skills and capabilities.

“The nature of digital services means that different regulatory regimes will interlink and overlap,” said the DRCF. “Where this occurs, we will develop approaches for ensuring a coherent regulatory approach.

“Areas of focus this year will be on the inter-relation between data protection and competition regulation, and the age-appropriate design code and the regulation of video-sharing platforms and online harms.”

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It added that the regulators would also work together to build their collective technical and analytical capabilities, which will include exploring new operational models to support more efficient skills and expertise sharing going forward.

“This might include, for example, building cross-regulator specialist teams,” the DRCF said. “We will also continue to engage closely with other regulatory authorities with responsibilities for digital markets, who share some of the challenges set out in our plan of work.”

It added that the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA), which has been an observer member of the DRCF since the outset, will be joining as a full member from April 2021.

Outgoing information commissioner Elizabeth Denham added: “Effective regulation supports digital innovation and economic development. It gives people trust and confidence to support innovation, safe in the knowledge that there are checks and balances in place to protect them.

“Through the DRCF, we will be working closely with the CMA and Ofcom. Our workplan is a roadmap towards pragmatic, practical solutions to the challenges arising from our increasingly digital world. Practical cooperation between regulators will drive better outcomes for business and individuals.”

Denham’s comments echoes the words of digital secretary Oliver Dowden, who at the start of March 2021 outlined the UK government’s plan to expand the remit of the next information commissioner to ensure that data is used to support growth and innovation.

“The next information commissioner will not just be asked to focus on privacy, but will be empowered to ensure people can use data to achieve economic and social goals,” said Dowden at the time.

The shift in the information commissioner’s role is in line with the government’s National Data Strategy, which, according to the information commissioner’s job specifications, sets out the “ambition for the UK’s pro-growth and trusted data regime, one that helps innovators and entrepreneurs to use data responsibly and securely”.

It added: “This will mean maintaining high standards of data protection without creating unnecessary barriers to data use.”

However, some data protection experts have criticised the ICO’s changing remit, claiming that the regulator will be under much more pressure to make decisions that go in the government’s favour.

For example, Chris Pounder, director of data protection training firm Amberhawk, said he interpreted the job specifications to mean that “data privacy is not the main priority if there is a ‘good’ economic reason for the use of personal data”, and that the government intends to “appoint a flexible information commissioner who will not be a stickler for the letter of data protection law”.

Pounder added: “The government appears to have abandoned the idea that the information commissioner is an independent umpire between the interests of data subject and the interest of the controller. The new commissioner is to be a team player tasked with delivering (or not hindering) the National Data Strategy.”

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