House of Lords Select Committee calls for Digital Authority and principle-led approach to internet regulation

House of Lords Select Committee calls for Digital Authority and principle-led approach to internet regulation

A new House of Lords Select Committee report recommends streamlining regulation and governance of the internet for citizens in the UK. Its single minded, forward thinking approach is welcomed but is unlikely to be actioned anytime soon because of Brexit.

Bad stuff happens on the internet that would not be tolerated in any other area of life.

The digital world is dominated by a small number of very large organisations that have become incredibly powerful. As a result the internet needs to be regulated.

It’s hard to disagree with the central tenet of the House of Lords Select Committee on Communications report, assertively titled Regulating a digital world.

The report has the misuse of personal data, abuse, and hate speech in its sights.

The internet was created as a means of connecting people and democratising information but has been hijacked by commercial interest. This needs to brought into check.

It’s a point made by the founder of the web Tim Berners-Lee.

“The changes we’ve managed to bring have created a better and more connected world. But for all the good we’ve achieved, the web has evolved into an engine of inequality and division,” he said.

Regulating for the future

The internet isn’t a lawless place. It is governed by copyright, decency, defamation, child protection and criminal law. The use of personal data is governed by Data Protection and GDPR.

The fact is that the law making process and governance cannot keep pace with the speed of technological change and the growth of platforms and digital markets. The intervention of government to tackle the issue would be a good thing.

The challenge is that it’s not possible to create laws to regulate situations as yet unknown that aren’t either abstract or over reach their purpose.

It’s an issue that was addressed in evidence to the Select Committee by the UK Information Commissioner Elizabeth Dunham. She proposes a principle-led approach.

“Principles-based regulation works in the area of law that is fast changing and fast moving. It allow more details to be developed through guidelines, codes of practice and certifications, that flow from the principles,” she said.

It’s an approach that the Select Committee has heeded rather than dodging the issue as is typically the case.

It proposes a Digital Authority to oversee regulation based on a set of ten principles to even out the balance between the physical and digital world.

The 10 principles are a good place to start a discussion about the future regulation of the internet.

10 recommendations for the development of internet regulation

  • Parity: there should be the same level of protection online as offline

  • Accountability: processes must be in place so that individuals and organisations are held to account for their actions and policies

  • Transparency: powerful businesses and organisations operating in the digital world must be open to scrutiny

  • Openness: the internet must remain open to innovation and competition

  • Privacy: measures should be in place to protect the privacy of individuals

  • Ethical design: services must act in the interests of users and society

  • Recognition of childhood: the most vulnerable users of the internet should be protected

  • Respect for human rights and equality: the freedoms of expression and information online should be protected

  • Education and awareness-raising: people should be able to navigate the digital world safely

  • Democratic accountability, proportionality and an evidence-based

Education and enforcement of internet regulation

Aside from regulation, this is an issue of user education and enforcement.

Media literacy has become an unfashionable topic in modern education but it is critical to understanding the source, bias and authenticity of content.

There’s also a behaviour issue. Communication on the internet is direct, blunt and often caustic, in a way that it isn’t in real life. It’s an issue of mediation.

Internet literacy should form part of the modern curriculum.

In terms of enforcement, the balance of power between platforms and users needs to be addressed with tools and processes to address issues.

Technology companies should not be able to self-regulate and should be held to public account through independent scrutiny.

More than a dozen organisations cover the regulation of the internet, often like Ofcom, extending a traditional media remit to the digital environment. However no authority has an overall remit. Tackling fragmentation with a single organisation makes a lot of sense.

The report is foreword thinking in its approach. No other government has made such a bold proposal to tackle internet regulation and hold large internet companies to account.

The challenge is that our law makers are fully occupied managing the Brexit process.

Internet regulation is an issue that needs urgent attention and the UK has an opportunity to set a leadership agenda however I think it will be a long time before we see change in the UK.

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