The Online Safety Bill will mean a new duty of care for tech companies, impacting almost all those that allow users to interact online. The Bill has been years in the making, is one of the first attempts to regulate online content in the world, and the issues it seeks to address are complex.

Please complete the form on the side of this page for a free copy of the Taso Advisory briefing document on the provisions in the draft Bill.

Taso Advisory hosted a webinar debate on the draft Online Safety Bill where we discussed the initial questions that it raises and how it will fare in Parliament once it is formally introduced. 

Our panel discussed:

  • Who the main interest and political groups are that support or oppose the Bill and their concerns. 
  • What clarifications are needed, including: scope, definitions, powers granted to Ministers and which companies are in scope. 
  • Where tensions will arise as the Bill passes through Parliament and what Members of Parliament and Peers will be looking out for. 
  • How the Bill fits into international efforts to deal with illegal or harmful content. 

Our panelists for the event were:

  • Ben Greenstone, Founder and Managing Director of Taso Advisory (Chair)
  • Margot James, Former Minister for Digital and Creative Industries
  • Darren Jones MP, Chair of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee
  • Poppy Wood, Senior Advisor, Reset.Tech

To access a recording of the session please click here.

Please get in touch if you would like to discuss how the Online Safety Bill will impact your business, the opportunities to engage, and how Taso Advisory can help.

Taso Advisory works with leading technology businesses and groups to manage the political, policy, and regulatory challenges they face, helping them to design and deliver credible responses to mitigate risks and seize opportunities. We make complex challenges simple, give actionable advice, and support in delivery. 

For a confidential discussion about how we can support your public policy and public affairs work please get in touch by emailing [email protected] or by calling +44 (0) 20 3488 4489.

    SUMMARY

    CONTEXT

    The European Union’s (EU) relationship with the US is back on track - at least for now. Over the past months there have been appointments, visits and meetings which draw the Biden administration closer to the EU. This is in stark contrast to recent years. On the environment, digital policy and taxation, US officials are speaking closely and sometimes like-mindedly with their European counterparts.

    Some of the commentary on recent changes in the US has raised how radically different Washington’s approach is. Whilst this is true in comparison to the previous administration, some of these changes are simply catching up with the debate. The EU’s positions are helpful indicators to see where the US could end up. 

    COMPETITION POLICY

    Lina Khan - who has advocated for a reformulation of tech antitrust rules - has been nominated as Commissioner of the Federal Trade Commission and Tim Wu - a prominent and outspoken tech critic - has joined the White House National Economic Council. These have been cast by some as a world change. 

    It is certainly true that their appointments are significant. But many of their views are already quite mainstream in Europe. Wu’s refrain that “When an online service is free, you’re not the customer. You’re the product” is often repeated in Brussels competition circles, including by European Commission Vice President Magrethe Vestager. Khan’s advocacy for reconceiving consumer harm, whilst novel, was also picked up in advisory groups to the likes of the European Commission and are certainly part of the debate.

    So what next for the US as it moves closer to the EU’s view on antitrust? First would be greater scrutiny of individual big tech companies. The European Commission has investigated all GAFA companies in the last ten years and continues to lead in the area. In the US, there are signs of closer attention like the FTC’s case lodged against Facebook but there are plenty more rocks to look under. 

    Second would be more bespoke rules for big tech. If the EU’s experience is anything to learn from, the technicalities and delay of enforcing existing antitrust rules may not satisfy the political will for action. The next step would be regulatory intervention along the lines of the EU’s proposed Digital Markets Act, which will put in place ex ante rules to try and boost competition in digital markets.  

    ENVIRONMENT

    Similar conclusions can be drawn from US changes toward climate change. President Biden’s decision to rejoin the Paris Climate Accord was an important and symbolic first step. Second was the commitment to multilateral efforts to drive cooperation with the appointment of John Kerry to lead a diplomatic front. 

    One challenge for the US is what to do if diplomacy does not deliver. There may be a temptation to adopt a different approach. The EU’s experience saw it take matters into its own hands, making climate policy a flagship area with initiatives like the Green New Deal and Carbon Border Adjustment Plan to try and incentivise others to follow their lead. These were pursued partly because the EU was alone during President Trump’s America and diplomacy stalled. If diplomacy comes up short then the US may use other instruments like trade policy.

    DATA AND PRIVACY

    Turning to tech regulation, the US is also playing catchup and is unlikely to want the EU to lead the way in setting a global approach as they did with the General Data Protection Regulation. Regardless of the assessment of whether GDPR was a success, it was a first step and has been emulated in other jurisdictions. .

    It remains to be seen how the US approaches the next big tech regulation dilemmas currently being dealt with in the EU. The European Commission’s proposed Digital Services Act takes a swipe at content moderation, whereas the US is still relatively behind debating whether in principle s230 should be repealed or reformed. Similarly, the European Commission is expected to publish rules for Artificial Intelligence in April with little to show for a US approach of the same breadth. In both cases, the US has ground to catch up. It may be that the US believes that existing rules are adequate. If they don’t, then they will need to cover matters which the EU is working on like explainability and liability in AI, free speech vs content moderation, and responsibilities for those operating online. 

    CONCLUSION

    As the new US administration gets up to speed there remains a lot to be considered from the EU’s work on areas from antitrust, climate change and big tech regulation. The EU’s experience in these areas gives some indication of where the US could go and what could follow. Each has their own politics and mindsets. But the US does not need to do much head scratching to see what issues may present themselves. 

    Taso Advisory supports clients with the political, policy, and regulatory challenges they face, and helps them to design and deliver credible responses to mitigate risks and seize opportunities. We make complex challenges simple, give actionable advice, and support in delivery. You can find out more about what we do and who we work with.

    For a confidential discussion about how we can support your public policy and public affairs work please get in touch by emailing [email protected] or by calling +44 (0) 20 3488 4489.

    KEY POINTS

    AI.jpg

    THE CONTEXT

    An independent review entitled ‘Growing the Artificial Intelligence Industry in the UK,’ carried out by Dame Wendy Hall and Jerome Pesenti, was published in October 2017. The report was jointly commissioned by DCMS and BEIS, and made a series of recommendations related to data accessibility, developing AI expertise and building research. It also recommended that an AI Council be set up to “promote growth and coordination in the sector.” 

    The Industrial Strategy, published in November 2017, set out a long-term plan to boost productivity in the UK, and identified AI as one of its key pillars. This led to the AI Sector Deal, which was published in April 2018. This committed roughly £1 billion from both the Government and industry to encourage AI research, development and adoption in the UK. The Office for AI, which sits jointly under DCMS and BEIS, was set up to implement the Deal and is responsible for overseeing implementation of the AI and Data Grand Challenge. The AI Council was set up following the AI Sector Deal and experts were appointed to the Council in May 2019. The AI Roadmap is its first major report. 

    THE CONTENT

    The AI Roadmap sets out recommendations across three main pillars largely echoing the Hall-Pesenti Review. These are:

    1. Research, Development and Innovation — recommendations include “sustainable public sector investment in AI” as well as “regional investments that draw on strengths from across the UK.”
    2. Skills and Diversity — recommendations include the commitment to “achieving AI and data literacy for everyone.”
    3. Data, Infrastructure and Public Trust — recommendations include “consolidating and accelerating the infrastructure needed to increase access to data for AI,” “leading the development of data governance options and its uses,” and “ensuring public trust through public scrutiny.”

    The final section of the Roadmap outlines more specific measures to boost AI take up in healthcare, climate change, and defence.

    KEY TAKEAWAYS

    The Roadmap makes a strong case for further AI investment in the UK, and argues the importance of making the UK a leading centre for the development of AI. The most interesting contents of the Roadmap from a regulatory standpoint, however, come under the ‘Data, Infrastructure and Public Trust’ pillar. Although the Roadmap takes a very pro-AI stance, it argues that this growth should not come without safety, security, and public scrutiny on AI uses across the economy. Accordingly, it calls for:

    The Roadmap notes that one of the major obstacles to successful growth will be “public scepticism and lack of widespread legitimacy,” and also makes a series of recommendations to build public trust of AI and data usage, including:

    The focus on public trust hints that data ethics will take a central role in future policy conversations about AI development, use, and growth more broadly (find out more about data ethics in our previous blog). 

    NEXT STEPS

    The Roadmap will inform future Government policy relating to AI, including the likely development of a National AI Strategy. AI is a major policy priority for the Government as it plans how best to leverage new and emerging technologies for post-pandemic economic recovery. As such, there is wide scope for corporate engagement in this area to share industry views on the recommendations of the report with policy makers, and work with them to shape future policy.

    Taso Advisory supports clients with the political, policy, and regulatory challenges they face, and helps them to design and deliver credible responses to mitigate risks and seize opportunities. We make complex challenges simple, give actionable advice, and support in delivery. You can find out more about what we do and who we work with.

    For a confidential discussion about how we can support your public policy and public affairs work on AI please get in touch by emailing [email protected] or by calling +44 (0) 20 3488 4489.

    SUMMARY

    The Government is consulting on a total ban of online adverts for products high in fat, salt and sugar (HFSS).

    The proposed ban comes as part of the Government’s obesity strategy and after the statement of intent to introduce a 9pm watershed on HFSS advertising both on television and online.

    The consultation is open for responses until the 22nd December 2020, with measures coming into force by the end of 2022. 

    CONTEXT

    In early 2019 the Government launched a consultation on further advertising restrictions for products high in fat, salt and sugar. That consultation closed in June 2019 and the Government is yet to publish its formal response. 

    The Government did, however, announce in their obesity strategy of July 2020 that they intend to ban HFSS adverts being shown on TV and online before 9pm. The Government said that it “wanted to go further online”. This consultation asks the questions on going further via a total ban of online advertising for HFSS products. 

    The Government is keen to be seen as proactive and tough on obesity. This is partly because the UK is particularly obese - two thirds of adults are overweight, with one third being obese - and partly because of the link between obesity and coronavirus mortality.

    WHAT’S IN THE CONSULTATION?

    The consultation is clear that a total ban of HFSS advertising online is the Government’s preferred option. 

    Rationale

    The broad aim is to reduce the HFSS advertising seen by people, and particularly by children (hence the 9pm watershed). The rationale for a total ban online is to “futureproof” the policy against changing media habits, account for a lack of transparent and independent data, and address issues with the way that adverts would be targeted away from children.

    The Government is particularly concerned about repeated inadvertent breaches of the rules, citing evidence that 95% of YouTube channels aimed at children have served HFSS adverts. The consultation considers targeting, and associated audience-based restrictions, to be too likely to fail. It is this assumption primarily that leads to the conclusion that the most workable solution is a total ban, rather than a watershed or similar. 

    Scope

    The consultation’s defined scope of online advertising is drawn about as broadly as it could be, covering search, in-game advertising, email marketing, advertorials and much more. It goes so far as to suggest that advertisers selling an HFSS product, or which are “synonymous with HFSS products”, should ensure that their own social media posts are only found by users “actively seeking them”. 

    The consultation proposes exempting broadcast video on demand from this total ban because of new audience measurement of the same quality and dependability as linear television. If the online advertising were able to offer sufficient comfort to the Government on measurement, it appears there would be room for a watershed rather than a total ban. 

    Enforcement

    The consultation proposes a new “statutory backstop” regulator to work alongside the Advertising Standards Authority. This statutory regulator would be able to levy fines and other civil sanctions for repeated breaches, as well as potentially being able to require evidence of compliance and processes from businesses in scope.  

    The consultation also considers whether other actors (potentially including advertising platforms and others) should have some responsibility for the advertising that they serve which breaches the restriction, and whether a notification and takedown regime could be introduced.

    WHAT’S NEXT

    The consultation is open for responses until 22/12/20. It will be an uphill battle for the industry considering the Government’s stated intent to go further and their naming of a total ban online as the preferred option.

    But not responding leaves online advertising businesses, as well as businesses that advertise online, hugely exposed to a major regulatory event. Businesses that will be impacted should look to respond to the consultation with strong evidence and clear arguments. 

    Taso Advisory supports clients with the political, policy, and regulatory challenges they face, and helps them to design and deliver credible responses to mitigate risks and seize opportunities. We make complex challenges simple, give actionable advice, and support in delivery. You can find out more about what we do and who we work with.

    For a confidential discussion about how we can support your public policy and public affairs work on proposals to ban online advertising of HFSS products, or more broadly, please get in touch by emailing [email protected] or by calling +44 (0) 20 3488 4489.

    KEY POINTS

    CONTEXT

    The DSA and DMA will be key pieces of legislation for digital markets. It is hard to overstate the full range of companies and business models which will be impacted by this new legislation. The Acts will reform rules which have governed the internet in the EU for some twenty years

    The DSA will introduce new rules where online platforms intermediate via the internet and allow the dissemination of goods and content. The term “online platforms” here is used in a very broad sense and covers a swathe of companies which act as pivot points between consumers and businesses, and/or allow consumers to create, view or share content. 

    At present, online platforms benefit from the eCommerce Directive which includes a liability exemption for user generated content, and additionally prevents Member States from imposing a general monitoring obligation on platforms. The DSA will reassess this framework and, whilst the European Commission has said that it will maintain provisions against general monitoring obligations, there will be greater duties for businesses to manage what is on their platform

    Meanwhile, the DMA stems from the frustrations among policymakers that existing competition policy tools and frameworks are inadequate for the digital economy. It combines two previously separate policy options from the European Commission into one legislative proposal. The first is a set of ex ante rules for online platforms of a certain size aimed at preventing them from abusing their “gatekeeper” status. The second will provide a “new competition tool”, enabling intervention in digital markets which are deemed at risk of being dominated by large platforms.

    The issues addressed in the proposals are perceived as increasingly central to how content, goods and services are consumed via the internet. They have received attention from the European Commission from a number of angles and Taso Advisory’s previous blog dealt with some of these early initiatives and legislation when the European Commission issued roadmaps and a consultation outlining broad policy options over the summer. The key takeaway is that these are not new topics for policymakers and there is a history of debate informing the upcoming proposals.

    WHERE WE ARE NOW

    Public consultations closed at the end of the summer and received a big response from all sorts of stakeholders. Since then, discussions have begun to crystallise around measures that are likely to make it into the final proposals. The points below are general, and certainly subject to change before the texts are published in December, but provide an emerging picture.

    Digital Services Act 

    The DSA is focused on two broad scenarios that will affect a majority of businesses operating online. The first is how platforms manage business users who list goods and services for purchase or consumption - like online marketplaces or the sharing economy. The second is more broad and covers how illegal content, goods or services are moderated online. This is beyond just social media sites and would include how platforms manage what goods, services or content is available to their users. Ideas which may feature in the final text include:

    Digital Markets Act

    The DMA consists of two pillars, as outlined above, which will equip the European Commission to intervene in digital markets. 

    Ex ante rules

    New Competition Tool

    DYNAMICS AT PLAY

    The debate around the proposals will be intense and they will be two of the key pieces of legislation for the current European Commission’s mandate. Not only will they impact a large number of businesses and business models, the issues at stake could have knock on effects for how the digital economy is run which are yet to be fully appreciated. Some initial dividing lines include:

    NEXT STEPS

    The European Commission is expected to publish its legislative proposals for the DSA and DMA on 9 December 2020. This could of course be delayed further, but once released the proposals will move to the Council of the EU and European Parliament which will scrutinise, propose amendments and adopt their own positions on the legislative proposal over the course of 2021

    Based on the level of interest already shown, these will be lengthy discussions and we can expect negotiations over a final text between the European Commission, the Council of the EU and the European Parliament to take some time. This could well impact when exactly the application of the provisions begin.

    Taso Advisory supports clients with the political, policy, and regulatory challenges they face, and helps them to design and deliver credible responses to mitigate risks and seize opportunities. We make complex challenges simple, give actionable advice, and support in delivery. You can find out more about what we do and who we work with.

    For a confidential discussion about how we can support your public policy and public affairs work with the Digital Services Act and Digital Markets Act, or more broadly, please get in touch by emailing [email protected] or by calling +44 (0) 20 3488 4489.

    INTRODUCTION

    The House of Lords COVID-19 Select Committee are currently carrying out an inquiry on the increased reliance of digital technology during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the long-term effects of this on wellbeing. The Committee will be hearing oral evidence between November and February, and is accepting written evidence from the wider public until December 11.

    CONTEXT

    The COVID-19 Committee was appointed in June 2020 to consider “the long-term implications of the COVID-19 pandemic on the economic and social wellbeing of the United Kingdom.” One of its first actions was to open a call for submissions from the wider public, many responses to which highlighted the accelerated digitalisation of work, education, healthcare, socialising, and retail. These responses have informed the theme of the Committee’s ongoing inquiry into living online during the pandemic.

    CURRENT ISSUES

    The COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly increased the extent to which society is reliant on digital technology. A survey by cloud communications platform provider Twilio has found that COVID-19 accelerated UK companies’ digital communications strategy by an average of 5.3 years, for instance. The aim of the Committee’s inquiry is to examine both the positive and negative impacts of these changes, with a specific focus on the four drivers of wellbeing: physical health, mental health, social interaction and quality of working life. 

    Given the intensity of digitalisation in the UK across the economy over the past eight to nine months, it’s likely that both the public and policymakers are cautious about accepting these changes wholeheartedly. Media focus on the increased digitalisation of life has focused on issues such as whether working from home makes employees feel isolated and whether education can be effectively delivered online, for instance. 

    There is a general consensus that some of these trends towards digitalisation are likely to remain long after the pandemic is under control. One stated aim of the Committee’s inquiry is to “explore what steps Government and others can take to maximise the potential positive benefits to wellbeing, and minimise the potential harms that arise from increasing use of digital technology.” Therefore, any insights gleaned from the inquiry have the potential to inform future policy on digital more broadly, and may prompt politicians and policymakers to introduce legislation and other tools to manage the changes being brought about through the digitalisation of work, education, retail, and healthcare. 

    So far the committee has scheduled two oral evidence sessions. The first, which took place on 10 November 2020, heard evidence on digital exclusion, and focused on topics such as the distribution of broadband services, internet access, digital skills and internet use, and projects and initiatives that improve digital inclusion. 

    The second session took place on 17 November and focused on digital trends in service delivery, workplaces, and personal lives. The themes it covered include the digitalisation of industries and services, emerging technologies and innovations, and the implications for governance and regulation. Witnesses included Benedict Evans, as well as representatives from Tech Nation, PUBLIC, and the Alan Turing Institute. The session focussed on issues such as regulatory capacity (or lack of), the use of ‘sandboxes’ for regulation, and the trade-offs inherent in policy. As Evans pointed out, privacy is at odds with competition.

    NEXT STEPS

    The Committee are also seeking written submissions that address questions covering a broad range of topics, including: service provision and access, physical exercise, mental health, loneliness, generational gaps in internet usage, working conditions, digital skills, broadband access, ownership of technology, and regulating digital technology going forwards. Given the breadth of topics to be covered by the inquiry, there is wide scope for corporate engagement in this area to bring political attention to different aspects of digitalisation, and in turn, to inform future policy and legislation on digital issues.

    Taso Advisory supports clients with the political, policy, and regulatory challenges they face, and helps them to design and deliver credible responses to mitigate risks and seize opportunities. We make complex challenges simple, give actionable advice, and support in delivery. You can find out more about what we do and who we work with.

    For a confidential discussion about how we can support your public policy and public affairs work in relation to the National Data Strategy and other issues, please get in touch by emailing [email protected] or by calling +44 (0) 20 3488 4489.

    INTRODUCTION

    The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) is currently carrying out a consultation on its National Data Strategy. The strategy was published as part of London Tech Week in September 2020, and outlines the Government’s data policy framework for the coming decade. DCMS are now seeking responses to the document from the wider public. Submissions are open until 2 December 2020.

    CONTEXT

    Matt Hancock, the Secretary of State for DCMS at the time, announced the UK Government’s intention to develop a National Data Strategy in June 2018. DCMS then launched an open call for evidence to inform the strategy in June 2019. The Government also ran a series of stakeholder engagements and roundtables throughout 2019. The outcomes of these engagements, as well as the responses to the call for evidence, have informed the strategy.

    It should be noted that the publication of the National Data Strategy follows a statement made by the Prime Minister in July 2020 that the responsibility for Government use of data would be transferred from DCMS to the Cabinet Office. This is part of this Government’s data drive. DCMS will, however, retain responsibility for data policy for the economy and society.

    WHAT IS IN THE NATIONAL DATA STRATEGY?

    The overarching aim of the National Data Strategy is to “drive the collective vision that will support the UK to build a world-leading data economy.” The document is underpinned by the idea that “unlocking the value of data is key to driving growth both within the digital sector and across the economy.” The contents of the strategy are organised under four pillars, relating to various aspects of data collection and usage. These pillars are:

    1. Data foundations — ensuring that data is “fit for purpose”, interoperable, and reusable. This pillar relates to promoting better formatting and standardisation of data across different sectors and industries.
    2. Data skills — ensuring that people at all levels of society are equipped with the skills required to understand, use and interpret data. 
    3. Data availability — improving sharing of and access to data amongst different sets of actors in the private, public and third sector.
    4. Responsible data — ensuring that data is used “in a way that is lawful, secure, fair and ethical.”

    KEY TAKEAWAYS

    The strategy focuses extensively on the potential for data to unlock economic productivity and growth for businesses, consumers and government activity. It outlines a variety of opportunities in boosting trade, supporting new jobs, increasing and improving research output, and driving better policy and public service provision. The strategy also sets out a number of actions the Government will take in an effort to realise these opportunities. 

    DATA SHARING

    A clear takeaway from the strategy is the Government’s belief in the economic potential in having data that is more accessible, and therefore ready to be put to more and better uses. The document establishes the Government’s intention to foster an environment where data can be more readily shared amongst actors and across different sectors of the economy. 

    This indicates that Government policy on data going forward may focus on making data held by private companies, for instance, more readily available to both consumers and other organisations. 

    DATA LITERACY

    The strategy acknowledges that a significant issue in effectively leveraging data capabilities is a lack of adequate training in the workforce to do so.

    DATA ETHICS

    The strategy also notes the importance of gaining the public’s trust on data collection and use in an effective data regime more broadly. In this respect, the strategy prioritises a “pro-growth data rights regime.” 

    More concretely, the strategy mentions the Government’s intention to “explore appropriate and effective mechanisms to deliver more transparency on the use of algorithms in assisting decision making within the public sector” (see our blog post on the DCMS Sub-Committee on Online Harms and Misinformation’s inquiry into data ethics for more on ongoing policy debates on algorithmic transparency).

    NEXT STEPS

    It is important to note that the strategy does not present the Government’s final view on data strategy and policy, and that DCMS is seeking submissions from the wider public on what the document has set out. The purpose of the consultation is to “sense-check” the proposed actions outlined in the strategy, and gather feedback on whether the strategy “meets its overarching objective of unlocking the power of data across the UK.” 

    Responses to the consultation will further inform the development of the Government’s policies and actions on data. As such, there is wide scope for corporate engagement in this area to raise any concerns over the National Data Strategy, to provide the Government with further evidence on how data is important to business and trade, and inform the Government’s overall policy in this highly important and quickly developing policy area.

    Taso Advisory supports clients with the political, policy, and regulatory challenges they face, and helps them to design and deliver credible responses to mitigate risks and seize opportunities. We make complex challenges simple, give actionable advice, and support in delivery. You can find out more about what we do and who we work with.

    For a confidential discussion about how we can support your public policy and public affairs work in relation to the National Data Strategy and other issues, please get in touch by emailing [email protected] or by calling +44 (0) 20 3488 4489.

    INTRODUCTION

    In debates on data, privacy and the use of algorithms, social media companies have usually received the greatest amount of attention and scrutiny. Parliament’s DCMS Sub-Committee on Online Harms and Misinformation’s inquiry on data ethics is opening up the conversation and taking a look at these issues in other business areas. 

    The sub-committee was set up in March 2020 to consider a range of issues in this area, including the forthcoming online harms legislation. So far, they have carried out an inquiry on online harms and misinformation, resulting in a report that largely focused on misinformation during the Covid-19 pandemic. The sub-committee is now carrying out an inquiry into online harms and data ethics, and have thus far held two oral evidence sessions. The first session took place in September and focused on the need to moderate ‘harmful’ content on social media platform Tik Tok. The second, which took place on the 13th of October, was a broader conversation on data ethics across different sectors. 

    CONTEXT

    In April 2019, the Government published its Online Harms White Paper, which sought to “make clear companies’ responsibilities to keep UK users, particularly children, safer online”. Its key proposal was that online platforms should have a “duty of care” to their users, which would place an obligation on them to tackle harmful activities on their digital platforms and services, in particular, on social media. The paper also stated that compliance “with this duty of care will be overseen and enforced by an independent regulator” who would have powers to levy fines on non-compliant parties. The Government’s chosen regulator is Ofcom. 

    While the White Paper related largely to content moderation, it also stated that the regulator would have the “power to request annual transparency reports from companies” and to request additional information “including about the impact of algorithms in selecting content for users and to ensure that companies proactively report on both emerging and known harms.”

    The Government confirmed its intention to bring in legislation on online harms in the Queen’s Speech in December 2019. The Government then published an initial response to its consultation on the Online Harms White Paper in February 2020, committing to a fuller response later in the year. This has been delayed by the pandemic, but is expected imminently. Since then, the DCMS sub-committee has been set up and has begun inquiries into online harms, misinformation and data ethics. 

    THE MOST RECENT SESSION

    While initial discussions on monitoring and evaluating algorithms have been focused on content selection on social media platforms, the sub-committee’s latest session on data ethics examined  how people are impacted by increasingly data-driven services and automated decisions in other areas.

    The session’s witnesses were Dr Jiahong Chen, a Research Fellow in IT Law at Horizon Digital Economy Research at the University of Nottingham, Carly Kind, Director of the Ada Lovelace Institute, and Dr Jeni Tennison, Vice-President at the Open Data Institute. The main takeaways from the session are outlined below.

    Data Collection and Usage Outside of Social Media

    Members of the sub-committee probed the witnesses to shed more light on data collection in other sectors of the economy. In relation to this, Dr Tennison highlighted that conversations on data ethics are not limited to how personal data is collected and used by social media platforms, but could also cover data collected through other kinds of accounts (e.g. utility accounts) which reveal different patterns of consumption and lifestyle choices or habits. She also noted that data on air quality and traffic provide information about communities that then gets interpreted and used in decision-making, and therefore the ethics of how that information should also be discussed, given its potential impact on communities. 

    Public Trust in Data Collection and Algorithms

    Relatedly, Ms Kind argued that data collection and data driven technologies were facing a lack of public trust, particularly in the wake of the Ofqual scandal over the summer, and early NHS Test and Trace failures. In the case of Ofqual, she argued that the “amount of damage that’s been done in trust in statistical models far outweighs what actually happened” and therefore, “going forward there’s a very high bar that needs to be met with any new data driven intervention.”

    The State’s Role in Promoting Transparency in the Use of Algorithms

    Dr Tennison and Ms Kind also pointed to the shortcomings of self-regulation in mitigating harms related to data collection and algorithm usage. Ms Kind in particular argued that “having some external accountability measure is imperative in creating an online space that is more hospitable to a wide range of communities” and that the public would value an “external, independent regulator.” 

    The Limits of Informed Consent, the Importance of Digital Literacy, and Building a Culture of Ethics

    One key theme of the session was the limits of informed consent in data collection and usage. GDPR requires data collectors to gain informed consent, meaning that the data subject knows the identity of the party collecting the data, what data processing activities the party intends to conduct, the purpose of the data processing, and that they can withdraw their consent at any time. However, both Dr Tennison and Dr Chen noted that most individuals do not have the time or resources to properly read terms and conditions and give actual informed consent, and that regulation needed to step in to ensure that users are not exploited. 

    However, the witnesses also recognised the limits in public policy’s ability to keep up with the speed at which new technologies are developed and implemented, and recommended investment in digital literacy as well as promoting a culture of ethics that both the private and public sector agree on. Ms Kind said: “Legislation might not be able to keep up but we can do a better job of building a coherent understanding of what public legitimacy for technology looks like and what standards companies have to meet in order to enjoy a social license to operate, to enjoy the public legitimacy of their users and consumers.”

    WHAT NEXT?

    Given recent coverage of data collection and algorithm usage in public policy, as well as controversies surrounding their failures and biases, legislators are keen to gain a deeper understanding of how these processes operate and to regulate their usage. The session highlighted how both legislators and researchers working on data ethics are increasingly worried that the GDPR model of informed consent may not do enough to effectively protect service users’ data, and that there may be a need for state bodies to regulate the collection and usage of this data even further. Although the debate around data collection and algorithms has very much been shaped by experiences from social media platforms, the concerns raised are likely to impact regulation of data collection and use across a broad range of sectors; therefore, there is wide scope for corporate engagement in this area to educate and work with policy makers. This is especially true as the full response to the Online Harms White Paper is published and associated legislation is drafted. 

    Taso Advisory supports clients with the political, policy, and regulatory challenges they face, and helps them to design and deliver credible responses to mitigate risks and seize opportunities. We make complex challenges simple, give actionable advice, and support in delivery. You can find out more about what we do and who we work with.

    For a confidential discussion about how we can support your public policy and public affairs work in relation to online harms, and keep you informed of developments, please get in touch by emailing [email protected] or by calling +44 (0) 20 3488 4489.

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