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The Future of UK Digital Policy

Words by:
Associate Director
September 4, 2020

“Covid-19 has impacted all areas of digital policy, but it has mostly accelerated a lot of trends that were well established”, according to former chair of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee Damian Collins MP. Speaking at WA’s recent event “The Future Of Digital Policy: In Conversation with Damian Collins MP”, Collins set out his take on the challenges, opportunities and ideas that lay ahead as part of the UK’s digital policy landscape.

A short overview of the most interesting points arising from the discussion is captured below, but if you would like to watch the event in full you can register for the link below, or to speak with us about any of the points raised, please do get in touch.

 

Priorities for the Prime Minister and DCMS

The Prime Minister made connectivity a key feature of his leadership campaign and since then, this has of course become a much bigger issue. The Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated a number of trends in digital policy that were well underway; the pre-existing drive for gigabit connectivity has been accelerated by the increased demand and use of streaming services, video conferencing and online communication. As such we should be prepared for the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to become much more of a delivery driven department, compared to how it functioned in the past.

In addition to its necessary focus on digital infrastructure, DCMS has a number of live debates on its hands which will all need addressing in the coming months and years and it will have to consider the disruption of all new service models. These include;

 

  1. The future of Public Service Broadcasting and the role of the BBC,
  2. The impact of Covid-19 on print media and the role of online advertising,
  3. Regulation of social media platforms and online harms,
  4. The future and funding of the arts and creative industries,
  5. The fusion of the digital and traditional tax economy.

 

Digital Infrastructure

While the increased demand on digital connectivity has doubled down the government’s determination to deliver gigabit capable broadband by 2025, the last few months have also shown that the parliamentary party and Conservative backbench are more concerned about “doing it right, rather than doing it quickly.”

This is good news for the competitive market, as regardless of a company’s (like Huawei) ability to deliver the infrastructure at pace, the Conservative backbench do not want to be in a position where the UK is vulnerable and dependent on a single infrastructure delivery company. In the eyes of the government, competition therefore remains necessary for both the delivery of digital infrastructure and a competitive market for retail network access afterwards.

There are options the government may consider, including adopting a similar model to that of Spain, where the networks have been opened up to competition and built by a number of different firms. Or the possibility of creating a tech version of Airbus, where there is a consortium of trusted companies across the UK and USA and other countries working together to deliver the infrastructure at scale and pace.  Ultimately however, the government is aware that protecting the competitive market with “use it or lose it rights” for shovel ready firms, has delivered results internationally and the government needs a solution quickly.

 

Public Service Broadcasting  and Online Advertising

The issue of Public Service Broadcasting (PSB) is one at the top of DCMS’s list of urgent priorities to address.

No longer does the premium of being a PSB cover the cost of funding needed, and questions are being asked in government about what PSB’s should look like and whether or not there is a space for them in the future.

The real funding gap faced by the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and others poses an existential threat to the traditional form of media and news media. The live debate around the funding of the BBC, and their decision to reduce budgets for their local news service is being challenged by Ofcom, as it brings into question what purpose the BBC and PSB’s truly serve in a modern Britain. These are major considerations being made by the government, and greater scrutiny of ring fenced funding is to be expected from both government and regulators.

The founding of PSBs is a bellwether for a whole host of issues as the UK shifts towards a more digital economy, and one thing the pandemic has brought into question is the need for greater alignment of the tax system. Considerations are being made in government about how best to raise revenue without introducing hefty tax increases, and we can expect the Treasury to look to tech firms and online platforms as a source of such income.

 

Online Harms 

The UK had the opportunity to be a world leader in online content regulation, however, over the last couple of years the government has stalled.

Alongside the long overdue outcome of the online harms white paper, the regulation of  online content has been drawn to the forefront of government’s attention by the increased public awareness of misinformation, particularly throughout the Covid-19 pandemic.

There are areas of responsibility the government will be looking at over the coming months, particularly in the role of social media firms in combating online harms and promoting misinformation. Social media platforms can expect to face scrutiny of the tools and algorithms they use to promote certain content. Where public pressure begins to mount on the government, such as has happened in Australia, the government may consider the need for an “online audit”, from an independent source, where a firm’s algorithms and internal mechanism are reviewed, ensuring it is operating responsibly, fairly and cooperatively.

 

The Role of Ofcom

Ofcom’s remit, just as that of DCMS, has consistently come under criticism for the scope of areas it is intended to regulate. As we see a reconfiguration of the Public Service Broadcasting service model, the increased prominence in online audio-visual content and the ever growing demand for greater digital connectivity, the role of Ofcom will become increasingly important. As such there are legitimate concerns and questions to be had around the regulators remit. Do they actually have the expertise and bandwidth to regulate this uncharted policy territory?

Possible options for the regulator may include dividing it in two, so that there is a regulator for infrastructure and a regulator for content. Solutions like this may be devised as part of a much broader review of the role and work of DCMS and its related regulators.

 

Conclusion 

The future of the UK Digital Policy remains an ambitious landscape with incredible opportunities and challenges ahead. Our conversation with Damian Collins MP highlighted one thing in particular, which is that the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sports has a whole myriad of complex and convoluted challenges on its hands. These challenges alongside this government’s affinity for data and technology, means that we should watch this space for the creation of a new Digital Department claiming overall responsibility for driving digital policy across Whitehall.

 

 

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