A new UK public body that will be tasked with helping regulate the most powerful companies in the digital sector to ensure competition thrives online and consumers of digital services have more choice and control over their data has launched today.
The Digital Markets Unit (DMU), which was announced in November last year — following a number of market reviews and studies examining concerns about the concentration of digital market power — does not yet have statutory powers itself but the government has said it will consult on the design of the new “pro-competition regime” this year and legislate to put the DMU on a statutory footing as soon as parliamentary time allows.
Concerns about the market power of adtech giants Facebook and Google are key drivers for the regulatory development.
Our new Digital Markets Unit, launched today, will help make sure tech giants can’t exploit their market dominance to crowd out competition and stifle innovation online.
— Competition & Markets Authority (@CMAgovUK) April 7, 2021
As a first job, the unit will look at how codes of conduct could work to govern the relationship between digital platforms and third parties such as small businesses which rely on them to advertise or use their services to reach customers — to feed into future digital legislation.
The role of powerful intermediary online gatekeepers is also being targeted by lawmakers in the European Union who proposed legislation at the end of last year which similarly aims to create a regulatory framework that can ensure fair dealing between platform giants and the smaller entities which do business under their terms.
The UK government said today that the DMU will take a sector neutral approach in examining the role of platforms across a range of digital markets, with a view to promoting competition.
The unit has been asked to work with the comms watchdog Ofcom, which the government named last year as its pick for regulating social media platforms under planned legislation due to be introduced this year (aka, the Online Safety Bill as it’s now called).
While that forthcoming legislation is intended to regulate a very wide range of online harms which may affect consumers — from bullying and hate speech to child sexual exploitation and other speech-related issues (raising plenty of controversy, and specific concerns about associated implications for privacy and security) — the focus for the DMU is on business impacts and consumer controls which may also have implications for competition in digital markets.
As part of its first work program, the government said the secretary of state for digital has asked the DMU to work with Ofcom to look specifically at how a code would govern the relationships between platforms and content providers such as news publishers — “including to ensure they are as fair and reasonable as possible”, as its press release puts it.
This suggests the DMU will be taking a considered look at recent legislation passed in Australia — which makes it mandatory for platforms to negotiate with news publishers to pay for reuse of their content.
Earlier this year, the head of the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), which the DMU will sit within, told the BBC that Australia’s approach of having a backstop of mandatory arbitration if commercial negotiations between tech giants and publishers fail is a “sensible” approach.
The DMU will also work closely with the CMA’s enforcement division — which currently has a number of open investigations into tech giants, including considering complaints against Apple and Google; and an in-depth probe of Facebook’s Giphy acquisition.
Other UK regulators the government says the DMU will work closely with include the data protection watchdog (the ICO) and the Financial Conduct Authority.
It also said the unit will also coordinate with international partners, given digital competition is an issue that’s naturally globally in nature — adding that it’s already discussing its approach through bilateral engagement and as part of its G7 presidency.
“The Digital Secretary will host a meeting of digital and tech ministers in April as he seeks to build consensus for coordination on better information sharing and joining up regulatory and policy approaches,” it added.
The DMU will be led by Will Hayter, who takes up an interim head post in early May following a stint at the Cabinet Office working on Brexit transition policy. Prior to that he worked for several years at the CMU and also Ofcom, among other roles in regulatory policy.