Shock: Google advises UK peers against more legislation

Ageing privileged geezers told: One does not simply 'regulate the internet'

Guy with tape across his mouth

UK politicians have been warned to pick their legislative battles when it comes to regulating the internet, and focus on the underlying principles rather than obsess over the companies dominating the space.

The House of Lords Communications Committee is the latest group of politicos to dip its toe into the waters of online governance, through its catchily titled inquiry, The internet: to regulate or not to regulate?

However, some respondents doubt the peers have quite nailed the question.

As fact-checking group Full Fact noted: "It doesn't make sense to talk about regulation of the internet as a whole. The internet is not a single entity and covers a wide and rapidly changing set of actors and capabilities."

The Competitions and Markets Authority (CMA) offered similar words of caution, saying that the call for evidence "uses terms, such as 'the internet' and 'online platforms', which cover a broad range of businesses of differing sizes, and a similarly wide range of potential issues".

Any future regulation must be "carefully scoped to be proportionate, to address targeted concerns that have been clearly identified on the basis of robust evidence, and to minimise possible distortions to competition", the group added.

In common with many other respondents, both the CMA and Full Fact note that regulation exists in a number of areas relating to the internet.

For instance, Paul Bernal, an internet law academic at the University of East Anglia, said that "to a significant extent the internet is already regulated" and that it wasn't helpful to give the impression the internet was "some kind of 'Wild West' overrun by rogues".

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However, the submissions pick out areas in which greater regulation would be welcome; for the NSPCC, this is children's use of social media, while Full Fact said that election law needs urgently updating to take into account the use of online campaigning.

More consistent are the concerns respondents make about the way data is gathered and used by tech giants, especially in relation to algorithms.

"That these algorithms are treated effectively as trade secrets, 'black boxes' that we cannot see into, should be seen as increasingly untenable," said Bernal.

Given the influence such data-crunching programmes have on our lives, he argued that it was more important to hold the companies developing algorithms accountable for them – "much more so than they should be held accountable for the content hosted on them".

Bernal and others said that the well-worn debate over whether companies are publishers or platforms – and so where their legal liability for the content published on them – was a red herring.

"The problem with this question is that it does not distinguish between the capabilities these platforms have," Full Fact said, which called for a more nuanced approach to understanding companies' liabilities.

The organisation also argued that the focus on Twitter, Google and Facebook as whole companies was unhelpful, as it "does not allow us to see deeply enough into the full capabilities of those and other companies' products".

The group said that, in five years, the companies, their products and capabilities might be different – so it was more important to consider the principles for regulation, not the companies.

Google: Do you really want us to pick and choose content?

For its part, Google – unsurprisingly – argued against quick or widespread reforms, saying that sweeping changes to liability for tech firms could have unintended harmful consequences.

Putting greater liability on intermediaries, it said in its response, could damage free speech, and would "inevitably suffocate much of what is a vibrant digital world" as over-cautious firms wouldn't publish content until it had been thoroughly vetted.

At the same time, imposing such liability risks handing over too much power to the companies, who would have to make legal or value judgments more suited to the courts or public authorities, Google said, reiterating arguments tech giants have pulled out many times before.

Just to hammer home the message, the search giant argued it would damage not just society, but also the economy, stating that the UK risked falling "far out of step with global norms" if it attempted to enforce such reforms.

Elsewhere, in response to a set question on competition, Google claimed internet platforms benefit businesses because it allows them to launch and scale a firm without investing in expensive tech. It pointed to a Deloitte analysis that says for every £1 firms spend on AdWords, they receive £3-£8 in profit. (Facebook employs a similar diversion tactic when asked about its monopoly, saying that businesses benefit from the service Facebook provides.)

Nonetheless, despite its clear vested interest, many of Google's arguments were reiterated by independent academics and organisations, who warned against knee-jerk regulation changes that could damage free speech and stifle users online.

"The government must avoid overstepping the line that protects these freedoms, recognising that historically governments have tended to overreact to emerging communications technologies," said Full Fact. "We should lead, not follow, our international colleagues."

Bernal also noted that drawing up regulation can open up new routes for lobbying efforts, which might not benefit all parties in the end. For similar reasons, the Safer Internet Centre said that any oversight function for ensuring platforms' adherence to existing or new rules are fair, transparent and efficient should be independent of both the government and industry.

The committee's inquiry is ongoing. ®

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