Will the Watchdog bite?

UK's new tech regulator begins work on pro-competition regime for digital markets

It has taken years of questions being raised in parliament and promises to take tougher action but the UK government is finally making good on its threat to regulate the tech giants with the launch of a new watchdog.

In the words of the official announcement for its launch, the Digital Markets Unit (DMU) at the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) is being set up to “make sure tech giants such as Facebook and Google cannot exploit their market dominance to crowd out competition and stifle innovation online.”

When the new unit was first talked about in government circles in 2020, the clear intent was to stop the tech giants dominating the digital advertising and publishing industries. The announcement that the unit would be formed was made in the same month a House of Lords Committee warned Facebook and Google were too powerful and rule over a “dysfunctional” digital advertising industry which meant UK publishers were struggling.

Hence, this latest announcement pointed out the new unit would seek to “boost the sustainability of the press”. The unit will aim to do this, at first, by looking at how new codes of conduct could make for a fairer digital advertising market in which greater competition is encouraged. The work will start off by seeking views within the industry in a process that will be run in collaboration with the communications watchdog, Ofcom.

Competition over privacy?

There was also a lot of talk about bolstering individuals’ rights over how their data is handled by the tech giants but this is not evident in the announcement of the DMU opening up for business. The only reference to privacy is a line on the new unit working closely with the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), the watchdog which polices the GDPR introduced in May 2018.

The new unit opens up just a month after the tech giants received a warning shot from the departing Children’s Commissioner in England, Anne Longfield. She ended her tenure in the post with a warning that social media companies have a “cavalier” attitude to the privacy of their young users.

She likened the lack of a duty of care law, to protect children online, as a situation we will look back on in the same way as adults today may question why there were no laws for seatbelts in cars when they grew up.

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