Online Safety Bill will not tackle monopoly abuse

As Parliament makes its recommendations on the Online Safety Bill, trying to fix the problems of accountability it brings, while perhaps adding new complexities, we need to step back and ask whether the Bill will do the job it is setting out to do.

The Government and MPs are rightly concerned about online behaviour and the power of online corporations to adversely impact on aspects of our lives and culture. The Bill purports to regulate these problems by creating duties to act against various kinds of ‘content’ that are unlawful or deemed ‘harmful’. But it does absolutely nothing to remove the basic drivers of the problem.

Indeed, the expansiveness of the Committee’s report show exactly this, as they try to find new ways to fix unwanted problems, by driving everything into a notion of harm, and suggesting new restrictions on the circulation of content.

Many times the question of the ‘attention market’ has been raised in discussions over the Bill. The ‘attention market’ is the result of the network effect of bringing people into a single platform, exploiting their data to prioritise whatever drives interactions, and monetising attention through advertising, also based on data profiling.

Thus we can see the ‘attention market’ as essentially being a problem of loss of control of personal data – a data protection issue – combined with lack of choice about how we interact with particular audiences – which is a competition issue.

The Online Safety Bill is neither about improving control of personal data, nor about addressing centralisation of the market. It is about content moderation, in essence. We should reasonably conclude that it cannot fix the underlying problems, and will only attempt to address the worst aspects of online content.

Even for proponents of the Bill, the clear message should be: do not expect too much. While the attention market remains in place, unpleasant, shocking, untrue, misleading or otherwise unhelpful but unregulated content will still tend to grab attention and generate revenues, and will continue to fuel unpleasantness and worse on platforms.

Where we should now be heading is back to strengthening data protection and competition policy. It is a fact that both the UK and EU are looking at ways to open up digital markets and platforms specifically. These could be really effective measures.

However, both content policy and competition policy rely also on strong data protection, which the Government is seeking to weaken. Competition policy needs consumer trust when data is handled by different digital companies; anything which allows data to be exploited in unpredictable ways will undermine people’s desire to try and use other products. This is especially true for ‘interoperable’ services, as we have with Open Banking. Competition policy simply won’t work if you don’t know and cannot trust how your data is used by new services.

Content policy likewise cannot expect to restrain poor optimisation and ad targeting practices when these are all out of the control of the user, and instead anything at all is permitted. This is the intention under the new Data protection proposals which would allow any practice to be justified which falls under the banner of ‘improving customer services’.

What we believe is necessary then is for the many groups and politicians who are interested in resolving ‘online harms’ to look beyond the current bill, and begin to engage with both data protection and competition policy. Data protection enforcement could easily address many of the problems of data exploitation today, if properly investigated and enforced. This is clear with Adtech and should quickly become clear with the profiling practices at Facebook, thanks to legal cases in Europe.

The power of competition policy should be obvious, but is not in the forefront of many people’s minds, as it is a new area, and measures are only now being designed to start the process of opening these monopolies up.

Nevertheless, if civil society, both as proponents and critics of the current bill, really want to see platforms making real improvements, then we should be looking at the competition and data protection as key for ensuring platforms become what they need to be, for us as individuals and socially.

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