UK parliamentary committee calls for new 'Digital Authority' to coordinate tech regulation

Committee chair Lord Gilbert told Computerworld UK that the new body will coordinate and evaluate existing regulators rather than replace them

The UK's House of Lords Communications Committee has called for a new regulatory framework for tech, including a new 'Digital Authority' that will coordinate existing regulators and make recommendations for regulation changes.

In a report titled Regulating in a Digital World, the committee argues that the UK's current regulatory regime is out of date and that there is an urgent need for a new approach that both protects online rights and supports innovation.

Committee chair Lord Gilbert told Computerworld UK that the most effective way of quickly ensuring that regulation keeps up with developments in tech is to oversee the existing regulators rather than establish a new regulator that takes on all of their responsibilities related to technology.

"What we're proposing in the Digital Authority is a powerful independent authority that reports to the government and to a new joint committee of Parliament," he said.

"That will coordinate the work of regulators and make sure there are no duplications, make sure that nothing suddenly falls between the gaps, will make recommendations for the future regulatory framework if they've got to, will be a UK source of expertise in some of the areas that the existing regulators struggle to recruit people, and most importantly will have a horizon scanning capacity."

There are currently over a dozen UK regulators with a remit covering the digital world. The Digital Authority would be made up of the chief executives of the most significant of these and headed by an independent chair. 

The body will be tasked with identifying areas of duplication, what's missing at present and what will be needed in the future.

"It will have the power to instruct the individual regulators to focus on a particular regulatory issue," said Lord Gilbert.


Regulation recommendations

The committee recommended that a duty of care is imposed on online services that host and curate content, which can be accessed by the public and enforced by Ofcom.

It also called for online platforms to make community standards clearer through a through a new classification framework akin to that of the British Board of Film Classification, and that major platforms should invest in more effective moderation systems to uphold their community standards.

Their users should have greater control over the collection of personal data, with maximum privacy and safety settings as the default, while data controllers and processors should publish an annual data transparency statement about their practices. The Information Commissioner's Office should be empowered to conduct impact-based audits to reduce the risk of malpractice.

The committee also suggested that the government creates a public-interest test for data-driven mergers and acquisitions and that any regulation should recognise the inherent power of intermediaries.

"Those are things that existing regulators should be getting on with now rather than waiting for a new regulator to be put in place," said Lord Gilbert.

No new regulator for now

Lord Gilbert expects some of these proposals to be included in the government's "Online Harms" whitepaper that is expected to be published in March.

While some hope that the whitepaper will call for a new standalone internet regulator, Lord Gilbert believes setting this up will be too slow to address the urgent need for new rules.

"One of the things that strike me every time we talk to witnesses and we talk to people internationally is there's huge respect for our regulators," he said.

"But the risk if we don't really take this horizon scanning responsibility seriously and look to the future is that we're always responding to issues after they've arisen rather than looking forward and forming public policy that suits them."