Taso Advisory's Managing Director, Ben Greenstone, was quoted in POLITICO Europe on the extraordinary powers given to the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport in the UK Government's proposed Online Safety Bill.

Ben said "The draft Online Safety Bill gives the secretary of state for digital a remarkable, and I think unprecedented, power to direct an independent regulator. This leaves business with serious uncertainty: the rules can change based on the whims of one politician.”

You can read the full article by Annabelle Dickson here.

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.

    The proposed Digital Services Act will have significant implications for digital markets in the EU and will apply to almost all operating online. It covers matters such as removing illegal content, transparency on ranking parameters, collecting minimum information on sellers through a platform, and advertising. 

    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 proposed Regulation and what it means for businesses.

      The Government's work on Online Harms will mean a new duty of care for tech companies, impacting almost all those that allow users to interact online.

      Following the publication of this response, the Government will bring forward a Bill in one of the first attempts to regulate online content in the world.

      Please complete the form on the side of this page for a free copy of the Taso Advisory briefing document on the Final Government Response.

        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.

        Taso Advisory spoke to Andrew Bowie MP about how a virtual Parliament has worked, whether it will continue, and what the future holds for businesses’ relationship with government.

        Andrew is the Member of Parliament for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine and Vice-Chair of the Conservative Party. He was previously Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Prime Minister.

        “I believe we will see Government much more willing to become involved in matters previously designated as ‘business’ from now on.”

        First off, do you think a (mostly) remote Parliament has worked?

        Andrew Bowie MP - I think on the whole, yes. There have obviously been some issues - the inability to cross examine a minister or intervene in debates, but as a measure to ensure the continued functioning of Parliament and scrutiny of Government, it has worked better than I expected.

        Do you think your view of how it has worked is widely held among your colleagues?

        AB - I think the vast majority of MPs feel as I do. However, there is a vocal minority on the extremes of the argument that would have us a) continue to meet ‘virtually’ into the future and b) that would have us resume normal business as soon as possible.

        What has been the most difficult thing for you and your team in working remotely? 

        AB - For me, the inability to meet colleagues and ministers in person has been deeply frustrating. Also, not being able to hold surgeries. For my team, not being able to discuss casework face to face or engage with constituents who ‘walk in’ has been difficult.

        What's something you'll take back to ‘in person’ working that you've picked up from remote working? 

        AB - Keeping in touch with my entire team – London and Aberdeen based – through video conferencing is something I will be continuing to practice that when we return to ‘normal’ working practices as too often, weeks can go by without the whole team talking to each other or knowing what each other is up to.

        We've seen some big companies commit to more working from home. Do you think we might see more of this happening with Parliament? Do you think we should? 

        AB - I think there are certainly things that we should be able to continue to do ‘from home’ even if Parliament returns to normal. For example, not requiring select committee witnesses to travel to London when instead they can join committees through video conferencing.

        Do you think that the relationship between business and government has been fundamentally changed by this pandemic?

        AB - I think it has. I think that we are moving back to a place where Government won’t resile from ‘interfering with’ or ‘supporting’ businesses, as opposed to the laissez-faire approach favoured by Governments of all colours since the 1980s. I believe we will see Government much more willing to become involved in matters previously designated as ‘business’ from now on.

        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 please get in touch by emailing [email protected].

        KEY POINTS

        CORONAVIRUS AND THE ROLE OF BUSINESS

        The effect of the pandemic on people, business and government is bound to disrupt the status quo whichever way it is approached. At its core, the economic challenge facing leaders is an inextricable link between government measures to protect people’s health, the resulting impact on economic activity, and then the pressure on governments to alleviate the pain caused from shutdowns.

        One of the effects of this loop has been a change in how governments view the role of business. Initially this has focused on ensuring job losses and bankruptcies are stymied. Looking forward, there will be other pressures once economic activity begins to resume and there are already signs that protecting relative national economic interests is high on the list. These tensions have provoked extraordinary responses compared to previous practice. 

        CHANGING SOLUTIONS FOR CHALLENGING TIMES

        In the UK, the government recently intervened when a chipmaker, Imagination Technologies, warned that they were at risk of losing control though attempts by their owner Canyon Bridge to appoint board members viewed as linked to the Chinese government. This intervention was unrelated to COVID-19, but it is a sign of Western governments being increasingly wary of foreign ownership. This trend could be set to continue.

        The UK Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) also moved to provisionally approve an investment by Amazon into UK-born Deliveroo. This deal was still raising eyebrows a few months ago over its anticompetitive implications. The CMA specifically cited the ‘deterioration in Deliveroo’s financial position as a result of coronavirus’ as a reason for their change of heart. Competition authorities always have to balance competitive market principles against arguments that scale is needed to survive and grow. The pandemic may suppress some of those instincts for greater competition when a firm’s survival is at stake. 

        A shift is also apparent at a European level. Early in the pandemic response, the Executive Vice-President of the European Commission in charge of competition policy, Margrethe Vestager, issued a warning that EU governments should be wary of foreign takeovers of cheap assets as a result of the downturn, stating that she has no issue with Member States buying stakes in companies to ward off takeovers. Perhaps more controversially, EU Member States are in the midst of heated discussions regarding temporary state-aid spending which has led to accusations that richer northern Member States are asymmetrically funding their firms to the south’s disadvantage.  

        These trends alter how companies are viewed. Rather than being a simple part of a free market economy, the delineation of business and national asset changes, with governments willing to reconsider their approaches to supporting home grown business in response to the pandemic and resultant downturn. 

        UPCOMING MILESTONES

        The UK government and others will have a keen eye on their medium-term recovery and there will be an abundance of policy positions, legislative agendas and political machinations in the coming months and years which businesses would do well to engage with. In the immediate term there may well be further support available to businesses, whilst the pressures will also mount from specific industries or firms seeking respite. But there will also be changes to policy areas which in normal times have stricter rules.

        Specifically for foreign ownership, the UK’s National Security and Investment Bill set out in the December 2019 Queen's Speech could see stronger protections for UK firms. The Bill is expected to allow greater scrutiny of mergers and acquisitions which trigger national security concerns. One of the important questions here will be what constitutes national security after COVID-19? Lastly, it will be crucial to understand how different government measures intersect with each other, particularly between the UK and EU Member States. For example, the European Commission has an upcoming white paper on an EU ‘Instrument on Foreign Subsidies’ and a legislative proposal expected in 2021. Brexit negotiations aside, it is an open question whether the UK’s COVID-19 measures, such as state aid, could fall foul of these moves against non-EU state subsidies. 

        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, please get in touch by emailing [email protected].

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