The last few weeks have seen a substantial ramping up of rhetoric from Westminster towards big tech. Facebook’s dramatic show of power against – and subsequent capitulation to – the Australian government over its new law obliging it to pay news outlets to host their content made for gripping viewing, and it has since become clear that senior ministers across the British government were tuning in to the action.
Matt Hancock came bursting out of the blocks to declare himself a ‘great admirer’ of countries which have proposed laws forcing tech giants to pay for journalism. Rishi Sunak has been bigging-up this year’s G7 summit, which will be held in Cornwall. From the way he is talking, it sounds like he is preparing to lead an army of finance ministers from around the world into battle with Silicon Valley.
Meanwhile, Oliver Dowden, the cabinet minister with responsibility for media and technology, indicated that he has been chatting to his Australian counterparts to learn more about the thinking behind their policymaking process. He followed that up with a series of stark and very public warnings to the businesses themselves, promising to “keep a close eye” on Facebook and Twitter, voicing his “grave concern” over the way big tech companies are operating and threatening sanctions if they step out of line.
This one-way war of words comes against the backdrop of a menacing new regulatory body slowly looming into view. The Digital Markets Unit, a quango which is set to form part of the existing Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), will be the chief weapon in the government’s armoury. As things stand, we know very little about what it is intended to achieve.
Big tech in its current form is a young industry, still struggling with teething problems as it learns how to handle owning all the information in the world. There are plenty of areas where Facebook, Google, Amazon and countless others are arguably falling short in their practices, from users’ privacy to threats to journalists, which Dowden and others have picked up on.
But the natural instinct of state actors to step in has the potential to be cataclysmically damaging. The government is running out of patience with the free market and seems poised to intervene. Countless times, haphazard central policy has quashed innovation and sent private money tumbling out of the country. Against the backdrop of the forthcoming corporation tax rise, there is a fine balance to strike between effective regulation and excessive state interference.
The nature of government interventions is that they block innovation, and therefore progress. Superfluous regulation is like a dazed donkey milling about in the middle of the road, bringing the traffic to a halt. Of course, the donkey is then given a charity collection bucket and the power to oblige passers-by to contribute a slice of their income for the privilege of driving society forwards, generating unfathomable wealth and providing us all with access to free services which have improved our quality of life beyond measure.
As the government ponders the appropriate parameters of the new Digital Markets Unit and seeks to place arbitrary limits on what big tech companies can do for the first time in the history of their existence, it should consider users’ interests first. There is a strong case to be made for shoring up the rights of individuals and cracking down more harshly on abuse and other worrying trends. But let’s not fall into the same trap as our cousins Down Under in making online services more expensive to use and passing those costs down to consumers.
As the much-fabled ‘post-Brexit Global Britain’ begins to take shape, we have a valuable opportunity to set an example for the rest of the world on how to go about regulating the technology giants. The standards we will have to meet to do that are not terribly high. In essence, all the government needs to do is avoid the vast, swinging, ham-fisted meddling which has so often characterised attempts at regulation in the past and Britain can become something of a world leader in this field.