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The UK is in the throes of a time-consuming, energy-sapping political crisis with most policies and reforms on ice as policymakers focus on Brexit.

Yet it could be argued that whatever political bandwidth is left, it is being devoted to social media platforms.

Indeed, even the embattled British Prime Minister Theresa May took time away from fraught negotiations over Brexit to discuss plans for new online protections – appropriately enough in a webcast.

The sector faces an impending law governing content, a competition investigation supported by the Chancellor of the Exchequer and a digital services tax due to come into force next year.

It has seen three hard hitting reports from a formal government competition review, another review on journalism and the media and a more scathing report – especially for Facebook – from a committee of MPs.

This huge range of initiatives obviously reflects the sheer scale and reach of social media in any modern economy and society, yet it is still an impressively long list covering matters of tax, data privacy, advertising competition, political advertising, online safety for children and concerns about political radicalisation.

The one unanswered question is whether social media platforms and indeed platforms more generally will come under the supervision of a bespoke regulator or whether existing bodies will gain more powers instead.

Online harms

The ‘Online Harms’ white paper published jointly by the UK’s Home Office and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport is suggesting that a regulator will have the power to issue “substantial fines, block access to sites and, potentially, impose liability on individual members of senior management at social media firms”.

The paper also calls for powers to force internet firms to publish annual transparency reports about the harmful content on their platforms and how they are addressing it.

It does leave the matter open as to whether new powers should sit with Ofcom, the UK’s existing communications regulator, or with another body. The consultation runs until the summer and will inform legislation.

Other initiatives are also likely to have an impact. Members of Parliament on the Digital, Media, Culture and Sport committee issued a report making stinging criticisms of Facebook’s role in the 2016 referendum vote.

Demands for better competition policies

But perhaps more fundamentally, it called for a bespoke regulator for social media platforms in the UK including enforcement and fining powers and for a Competition and Markets Authority investigation into the online advertising market.

Separately, the UK Treasury, in the wake of announcing a digital services tax, due to come into force in 2020, also set up a review into online competition late in 2018, headed by Harvard economist and former chair of President Obama’s council of economic advisers Professor Jason Furman.

It reported in March with another set of wide-ranging recommendations, but these, arguably, put more pressure on business models.

Among other things, it wants to see the already powerful UK regulator, the Competition and Markets Authority (mentioned in the MPs’ report) updating its enforcement tools to stop anticompetitive conduct and to protect and promote competition in the digital economy.

It suggests – politely – that the CMA look back at cases where perhaps it should better have applied its rules in the past – to inform its approach in future.

The review also recommended a ‘digital markets unit’ to establish a digital platform code of conduct.

Furman and his team say the unit should have new powers available to impose solutions and to monitor, investigate and penalise non-compliance.

Crucially for the tech giants it also wants a regulator to be able to act where a company holds a “strategic market status” – with enduring market power over a strategic bottleneck market.

Finally a review into the state of British journalism chaired by British academic and former economics journalist Baroness Cairncross also had thoughts about competition.

The report, charting the decline of British newspapers in terms of titles, revenues, readership and journalistic coverage, made a series of recommendations.

Once again this included a code of conduct but this time to rebalance the platforms’ relationships with news publishers.

It wanted to avoid instances where a “a sudden tweak in the Facebook algorithm, for instance, leads to a drastic drop in traffic to news sites and cause a loss of advertising revenue”.

It also called for the CMA to launch an investigation into the online-advertising industry adding that the “evidence shows the data-gathering powers of tech companies like Google have made it difficult for small players to enter the market”.

The big tech firms have found themselves fighting a war on several fronts although what may be lacking for now is one government coherent view.

And Brexit hasn’t gone away. For example, both the Chancellor Philip Hammond and the CMA itself made it clear that although there will be review, because of Brexit they do not have the resources for a major project just yet.

As UK public affairs expert Tom Wilkins, director with Cicero Group, says: “The Government is being deliberately tough on tech in terms of its strategy. What they are trying to do is up the ante on the tech sector. So, while there is a lot of noise from the US and EU, it is the UK are taking the more concrete initiatives.”

For tech firms, concerned about the tide of global regulation, the UK is certainly a market to pay attention to.

They may also want to note that Professor Furman believes that the UK should be spreading the message about the need for tough action on competition among tech providers to the rest of the world.

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