Ex-minister predicts ‘huge battleground’ over UK’s plan to set internet content rules

The former U.K. minster of state for what is now the digital and culture department, DCMS, has warned of the looming battle in parliament over the exact shape of incoming online safety legislation.

In an interview with TechCrunch, Ed Vaizey — a former Conservative Party MP, now Lord Vaizey of Didcot, who was head of the culture, comms and creative industries department, as it was then, between 2010 and 2016 — predicted a huge tug-of-war to influence the scope of the Online Safety Bill, warning that parliamentarians everywhere will try to hang their own “hobby horse” on it.

The risk of over regulation or creating a disproportionate burden for startups vs tech giants is also real, Vaizey suggested, setting out several areas that he said would require a cautious approach.

“In theory it’s just going to be the big platforms that will be regulated,” he said of the scope of the Internet Safety Bill, which was published in draft form back in May — and which critics are warning will be catastrophic for free speech.

“Some platforms that should be regulated could potentially not be be regulated. But you’re right that people are concerned that, in effect, there’s a paradox — that it could help the Facebooks of this world because the regulatory hurdles that get going might be too big. And if anyone is capable of being regulated it’s Facebook, as opposed to a startup. So I think that’s something we have to be very careful of.

“Secondly, although I support the principle of legal but harmful content being regulated I have no doubt at all that that is going to be the big battle in parliament. The balance between legal but harmful free speech is going to be a huge battleground. And it will be interesting to see in what form it survives.

“And thirdly — I think, paradoxically — everyone is going to try and hang their own particular hobby horse on this piece of legislation.”

With sweeping goals for the Online Safety (neé Harms) Bill from the get-go — the government is proposing to make online platforms tackle not just illegal but harmful content, which could mean everything from terrorist propaganda and child sexual abuse material to racism, bullying, pro-suicide and pro-eating disorder content to anti-vaxxer views — the draft legislation has attracted plenty of concern and controversy already, and the formal parliamentary debate hasn’t even started yet.

The “hobby horse” risk could mean a vast encrusting of an already wide-ranging proposal for internet regulation, with MPs trying to barnacle on all sorts of issues and grievances that can be loosely attached to the digital sphere. But it will be U.K. tech businesses saddled with risk and regulatory red tape at the end of the process, while fundamental British values like freedom of expression could be caught and crushed in the middle.

Signs of MPs’ appetite to shoehorn random pet peeves into what some have dubbed a “kitchen sink bill” are plain to see.

Just last week, concerns were raised that anti-sex work campaigners intend to target the bill to include clauses against “online pimping”, for example. So a “battleground” sounds like a polite way to characterize the looming cacophony of arguments in parliament over what does and doesn’t get stuffed into this Great British internet rulebook…

Vaizey gave the example of online scams as one likely target for amendments to further extend the scope of the Online Safety Bill. Although provisions to target ad scams are probably one of the less controversial additions that could come.

“I obviously do not support online scams but it’s pretty obvious that people will try to put amendments down to make sure that certain things are caught which are not currently in the scope of the bill. And one has to be careful it doesn’t get weighed down with too many, too much regulation — so there are all sorts of weird contradictions,” he warned. “It could be gutted, it could be fattened up, depending on who prevails in parliament.”

But he also generally welcomed the plan — saying the government deserves praise for drafting what he described as a “pioneering” bill and arguing that internet regulation is “long overdue”.

“I think it is a pioneering piece of legislation. People will criticize this legislation, of course. My view is you can’t let the best be the enemy of the good. It is not — by no means — going to be perfect when it arrives in parliament. And it will probably not be perfect when it emerges out of parliament. And as it’s implemented by Ofcom in the next few years there will be areas of mistakes,” he said. “But I think that tech regulation of this kind is long overdue.

“Very important countries like Canada and Australia, and indeed the European Union and the U.S. are looking at this and they will look to the U.K. example and take lessons from it.”

Ofcom chair role

The former minister of state has recently been in the running for a key vacancy atop Ofcom, the U.K. telecoms and media regulator which is itself in the process of being fattened up for an expanded role overseeing internet content and social media giants.

The government has said it wants to give Ofcom powers to levy fines of up to 10% of a company’s annual global turnover (or £18 million, whichever is higher) if they fail to live up to the bill’s requirements to protect users from illegal or harmful content.

So the regulator is set to have major powers to influence tech giants’ approach to content moderation and online freedom of expression in the coming years.

Vaizey was interviewed for the role of chair of Ofcom and shortlisted by an independent panel. However, earlier this year, the then secretary of state for digital, Oliver Dowden, chose to rerun the competition — rather than pick a candidate from the whittled-down shortlist.

Reports have suggested the government was unhappy that the independent panel rejected its preferred candidate, ex-Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre — and that it’s still trying to find a way to parachute the divisive former newspaper editor into the top job overseeing social media platforms’ compliance with legally binding content rules.

Vaizey sidestepped these rumors when asked if he’s still in the running for the Ofcom job — suggesting the government decided to rerun the competition because of a lack of applicants in the first round.

“Clearly the government felt it needed a more competitive field. So it may be that I only got an interview because so few people applied,” he told TechCrunch. “But I really enjoyed the interview and I would love to be chairman of Ofcom so I’ll see when they reopen the process whether there’s an opportunity for me to apply.”

“Ofcom is at a point where it’s proven itself as a telecoms regulator, and I think to a certain extent as a media regulator. But it is entering uncharted and very exciting territory in terms of internet regulation,” he added.

Asked what his priorities would be, were he to get the dream job chairing Ofcom, Vaizey said internet safety would top his list — on account of how challenging overseeing the digital realm will be.

“That is going to be the biggest challenge for Ofcom; how do you absorb such an enormous role? And also how you communicate to the public or the stakeholders that this will be a work in progress?,” he said, predicting: “It will not emerge fully formed.”

Were he to give a “light critique” of Ofcom, Vaizey said it would be that the regulator needs to dial up its “pro-business” flank.

“You can also be pro-consumer by being pro-business,” he argued. “And I think in a highly competitive area… the job of the regulator is not only to regulate but also to know when not to regulate and to step back and let businesses navigate a very complex and competitive environment.

“So if I was to bring any kind of ‘Vaizey-esque’ approach to Ofcom it would be to make sure that businesses felt they had a regulator that wasn’t too much on their case, and was as much a partner as much as a regulator.”

Data adequacy

TechCrunch also asked the former minister of state for his views on the government’s appetite to “reform” data protection rules.

Last month the government announced a consultation on a data reform, suggesting that “simplified” rules in this area would be better for business.

Currently, U.K. privacy rules are based on the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) — which is considered the “gold standard” for protecting people’s digital information globally. But the U.K. government’s policy push appears to favor reducing this current high level of protection for U.K. citizens’ information — without presenting a coherent economic case for why lower domestic privacy standards will be an advantage for digital businesses.

The government has made the simplistic claim that easier access to data will somehow stoke “innovation”. However, U.K. startups wanting to access the European market — or indeed U.S. companies subject to rules like California’s CCPA — will continue to need to comply with robust privacy regulations elsewhere.

On data reform, Vaziey suggested there could be room to make the practical implementation of U.K. data protection rules less “onerous” for U.K. businesses and organizations without undermining key principles of privacy and protection for personal data.

But on those principles he warned that the U.K. staying aligned with European Union standards will be vital for the digital economy — saying it would be “disastrous” were the U.K. to lose the data adequacy agreement with the EU that allows for continued free flows of data from Europe to the U.K.

“The U.K. was very influential in how data protection legislation was drawn up when we were members of the EU so I think it’s slightly odd that we should shy away from that legislation,” Vaizey also told us.

“It is a very EU defining thing — and so I think the biggest watchword for the government when they look at reforming data protection legislation is obviously what’s gone on with the U.S. [which has had two data transfer agreements with the European Commission struck down by Europe’s top court].

“You do not want a position where you make yourself vulnerable to attacks by the EU to say that your data protection regime is not adequate and we can’t therefore have cross-border exchanges of data — that would be disastrous. So whether we like it or not we will have to keep to a certain extent in lock-step with the European Union.”

“I also think it’s the case that the European Union legislation… has become the gold standard of data protection,” he added. “If you look at California adopting data privacy legislation it is based on European legislation and most tech companies will comply with that as their default standard because it just makes their life a hell of a lot easier when they’re trading globally.”

U.K. must stay open to tech skills

Vaizey has just taken up a new appointment as patron of the digital skills-focused U.K. industry association ITP, aka the Institute of Telecommunications Professionals.

Discussing the skills challenges facing the country he said there is no room for complacency — given rising global demand and increasingly fierce competition for tech talent around the world.

“I think we are doing really well and we continue to do very well but as with any area you cannot afford complacency and all the tools are there with the right resources to really push forward,” he said, discussing the government’s approach to skills — which now includes a 10-year strategy to boost domestic AI capability.

“One looks at what [president] Macron has done in France and I think it’s fair to say that he took France from a standing start… He’s done a tremendous job of raising the profile of France as a tech-friendly nation. So I think we can’t afford to be complacent. We’ve got a lot going for us but we can move up another gear.”

Vaizey also queried whether the government will take what he said must be a necessarily “open” approach to immigration to ensure U.K. startups are able to thrive.

“Not only does every country in the world have this problem but every startup in any European country is competing for talent, and any startup in the U.S. is competing for talent,” he said.

“I’m pleased to see that with Tech Nation and so on there are more entrepreneur visas available but I think the government has to be very open to the fact that to get people over with the right tech skills to support startups has to be an absolute priority. And they have to be flexible.

“Because when we had free movement [as part of the EU] one of the great advantages of free movement is that you could take a job and you knew that your partner would also be able to get a job in the U.K. as well. So that’s something that they really need to lean into.”