Without regulation, big tech can shirk its responsibility to society and the economy
D/SRUPTION spoke to Lord Stephen Gilbert about the turbulent relationship between governing bodies and big technology companies…
In many instances, the dynamic is positive. Governments can help tech firms to thrive, for example, by providing grants, resources, and contacts, and by placing caps on international competitors. Technology companies, on the other hand, can use their own expertise and resources to help official organisations with policy matters and projects.
However, the interaction between big tech and governments isn’t always so harmonious. Governing bodies are able to place regulations on companies that, despite being necessary to ensure good practice and compliance, are often seen to stifle innovation. Likewise, companies can be equally obstructive by refusing to cooperate. Now that companies have access to so much data, their power could be seen to rival that of official governments. The dominance of online platforms like Google, Amazon, and Facebook has led to the inevitable question: is big tech too powerful, and how can regulators enforce good practice?
Making regulation more coherent
According to Lord Stephen Gilbert, Chairman of the House of Lords Communications Committee, the digital economy is a huge area of public policy concern. Last year, the committee conducted an enquiry into the advertising industry which quickly threw up a range of digital issues surrounding data, data privacy, and terms and conditions. This led to a broader exploration into regulation in the digital world, and the need to protect users and their data.
“Technology moves incredibly rapidly, but you’ve got quite slow paced regulation. It became clear that we needed to address some of the regulatory concerns in the digital age, but we also put forward a fundamental recommendation about how regulation happens in the future,” he says.
The proposal at the heart of the Committee’s Regulating in a digital world report, Gilbert explains, is a new Digital Authority that will make sure existing regulators are addressing key issues. The authority will also carry out a horizon scanning role, preparing for regulatory issues that could arise over time.
“The job of the authority is to make sure there is nothing falling between the gaps of the existing regulators. That’s why the chief executives of the most prominent regulators in this space should sit in the same room and jointly discuss the issues,” he says. “There should then be a number of independent members, who are not part of the existing regulatory framework. There should be a powerful, independent chair who is not afraid to stand up to government and argue to parliament that more powers are needed.”
Accountable, open, ethical
In the report, the Communications Committee sets out 10 key principles. Broadly speaking, they argue for accountability, transparency, openness, privacy, and an ethical approach that considers the needs of society while protecting and educating users. These are particularly important in a socio-economy that relies on big tech.
“Technology companies have huge power,” says Gilbert. “It’s quite clear to us that with that power comes huge responsibility. They provide services that lots of people describe as utilities. Because they are so big and powerful, a whole range of statutory and non statutory regulation is required, and we expect them to behave responsibly, not only thinking about their shareholders and customers but about the effect on society.”
Large technology companies are now so powerful that they can point blank refuse to cooperate with the government. In some cases, perhaps this is a good thing. In 2017, for example, WhatsApp declined to build an encryption back door at the request of the UK government, citing user privacy as the reason. WhatsApp’s disobedience may have been benevolent in this instance, but if WhatsApp can ignore government demands, then so can others with more questionable motivations.
“In considering whether a business is abusing a dominant position in a market, which is a power that the authorities currently have, they should give wider consideration to consumer detriment. At the moment it’s mainly measured in economic terms like price. We’re saying that should be broadened, so the effect on choice and openness should also be taken into account.”
The level of influence of Silicon Valley’s A listers could also be viewed as harmful to market competition, not just users. In response, one of the report’s proposals is a public interest test to analyse data monopolies.
Cooperation in regulation
In the eyes of many, major platforms have failed to regulate themselves effectively. While they may have attempted to self regulate, it could be argued that their efforts have fallen short. Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal and Google’s shady use of Gmail user data are just two high profile examples of tech giants gone rogue. The problem is that users don’t often know what they’re signing up for. They may not be fully aware of their data rights and, aside from GDPR, there are essentially no mandatory rules to govern how tech companies handle data.
“That’s why we think the new Digital Authority is really important, because it can galvanise all of the expertise that we have at our existing regulatory bodies and take a leading role internationally. For the time being, bringing people together in an authority with real power to direct is the right way to go.”
For Gilbert, regulation should be a mix of self regulation, co-regulation, and statutory regulation. Regulators and big business will therefore need to cooperate so that users know exactly what a platform is offering, what community rules it will follow, and what will happen if it fails to do so.
If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em
Technology companies and governing powers are locked in a difficult balancing act. Governments have a responsibility to their citizens to make sure that companies follow certain rules and regulations, but technology companies move much faster than the legislative machine and can view laws as stifling. Calling for a Digital Authority that draws together existing regulators is a clear move by the House of Lords to cut the delays associated with regulation and to take a proactive approach to future regulatory issues.
“Freedom of speech is important when considering all of these factors. It’s perfectly reasonable for the tech companies to engage in that debate, but to dispute them I think is highly unlikely,” Gilbert says. “If they aren’t doing the right things, they’ve got to accept that statutory regulation will be enforced.”
Teamed with recent events that have cast doubt over certain corporations, the report suggests that companies should be placed under greater pressure to fulfil socio-economic requirements. This could lead to corporate backlash, but by communicating and working together, hopefully any points of contention can be resolved. Companies should be able to move freely, but they need to accept that with great power comes great regulation.
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