Commentary

Boris Plays Nice With US Tech Giants On Regulation

The timing and the content of yesterday's announcement on Ofcom being lined up to police the internet were both very interesting.

Where there was supposed to be a requirement for social media bosses to put their own liberty on the line if they fail to protect the public, we had instead just talk of fines for companies, not prison for individuals. That was the main omission that got The Times hot under the collar for, it claims, wrongly "backing off."

But to start, let's acknowledge that the announcement was due to happen on Tuesday because it was Safer Internet Day. However, when I looked on Tuesday I couldn't find any reference to new rules on the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. In fact, it was difficult, certainly in the morning, to see anything about even the day. Searches showed up speeches made by ministers celebrating the day, but for previous years, not 2020.

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The reason? It doesn't take a Sherlock to realise Boris was set up to be the only show in town on Tuesday, announcing the high=speed rail link between Birmingham and London would go ahead, and so too would further links to Leeds and Manchester, eventually, you know, one day. There was a lot in there about buses and cycle lanes too against a backdrop of the Prime Minister even wanting a bridge across the Irish Sea to Northern Ireland investigated. 

When Boris is on his feet in the Commons committing more than GBP100 billion to the HS2 rail link alone, there can't be any other announcements.

And so, curiously, plans to announce how the Government is "minded" to regulate the internet were announced the day after Safer Internet Day and the day before today's Cabinet reshuffle in which Baroness Morgan was almost certainly always going to be replaced to make way for someone in the Commons. 

The announcement was pretty much as expected, apart from one key element. On the predictable side we have Ofcom being touted as the regulator whose telecoms powers will be extended to oversee the internet. The big internet sites will be expected to pay a fee to be regulated to fund Ofcom's extra remit.

The unexpected side was, as The Times describes, that Boris has decided to "water down" earlier talk of fines and legal proceedings against social media and tech-giant bosses and instead have a rethink later on in the year.

The paper has spoken to the department responsible, and the mood music there is that fines or criminals sanctions against individual bosses would be too harsh. 

So the tech giants will not be treated like the banks. It is highly unlikely that they will be asked to have a person who will be personally liable for the new "duty of care" that will be placed upon them by the new regulator, Ofcom.

Instead, we will have the usual fines that might sound large to the layperson, but will be pocket change for companies who generate billions in annual profit from the UK before much of it is, legally, accounted for in lower tax jurisdictions.

Washington has made it very clear that it does not want the tech giants to be taxed harder in the UK, and it is self-evident that any draconian powers taken out against the tech giants, and their bosses, will be viewed dimly by President Trump.

That's not good news when Boris is hoping to get a decent trade deal for the UK once the transition period finishes at the end of the year. 

Boris has already decided to side with the Americans by blocking a controversial part of the new Copyright Directive, which makes the sites responsible for policing ownership of content. Now, it would appear that he is throwing them a bone with a reassurance they won't be personally placed in the dock for duty of care failings.

The Times is right -- the initial proposals, or at least the initial talk surrounding the proposals has indeed been watered down.

The tech giants will face fines -- but the social media bosses won't lose any sleep over potential jail time.

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