The UK has asserted itself as a global leader in tech regulation; what does this mean and what comes next?

By Euan Ryan, Senior Account Executive, Cicero Group

With the Government’s publication of the much-anticipated Online Harms White Paper and Code of Practice for social media platforms, the UK has asserted itself as global leader in the debate around the future of tech and social media regulation.

Previous efforts from the EU and US in this area have seen small inroads into the most egregious areas – namely terrorist content, other explicitly illegal activities and election interference – but the newly released paper sets out a far more holistic approach, calling for the development of an independent regulator that would oversee a far larger range of companies than originally discussed; including not only social media platforms but file hosting sites, public discussion forums, messaging services and search engines. It also imposes a duty of care, holding companies liable for taking reasonable steps to protecting their users from harm.

The release follows significant interventions from the likes of Mark Zuckerberg, who made the unusual step of calling for increased oversight of his own industry, and the EU, which has developed relatively stringent regulations on copyright that caused significant concertation for holding tech companies liable for much of the copyrighted content they host on their sites.

What do these developments reflect? In essence, such developments reflect the broad undercurrents of deepening public concern over the role of tech giants on their lives and society as a whole. But the controversy surrounding the EU’s new laws and the debate over the impact of the UK’s proposals to mitigate online harm highlight the fine line that needs to be struck between freedom of expression, fostering innovation and greater competition, and proportionate protection.

The Government is currently undertaking a wide array of work in this area, including the recent report on Unlocking Digital Competition and upcoming Smart Data Review, as well as the review of digital competition due out this summer that comes as part of the Green Paper on Consumer Markets. Additionally, the consultation on the controversial Digital Services Tax (DST) closed in February and we can expect a response in the near(ish) future. Though Brexit is undoubtedly having a chilling effect on domestic policy development in the UK, it remains at the forefront of tech regulation. As such, industry should be looking to what may appear to be an increasingly dysfunctional Westminster if it wants to engage seriously with policy development in this area.

As my colleague, Luke Seaman, wrote previously, the potential success of such initiatives is rooted in the ability of the UK to lead a global approach to regulation. That is explicitly what this Online Harms report intends to do, and DCMS Secretary, Jeremy Wright’s op-ed in CNN reveals these ambitions further. And as highlighted by CEO of techUK, Julian David, at a Cicero event last week, tech companies themselves are clear that a coherent cross-continent approach – not a siloed one – is required, so it will be interesting to see how the UK’s recent developments play out on the global stage. 

What is also evident is that the level to which these companies have become ingrained in the wider economic landscape means that efforts to regulate them have wide-ranging consequences. As such, Cicero will be analysing how these developments will likely impact a range of sectors and issues in the coming weeks, including: digital competition; the use of data; social media companies; digital content producers; and the advertising industry.

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Euan Ryan

Senior Account Executive

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