Accountability in the digital age: Imagining an internet regulator

Photo by Giu Vicente on Unsplash

Doteveryone’s research into public attitudes towards and understanding of digital technologies, People, Power and Technology, has found a strong appetite for greater accountability from technology companies. From understanding how their personal information is used to knowing that a company adheres to local laws — the public said that they would like to find out more about how the internet works but can’t currently do so. Our report recommends the creation of an independent body which would ensure robust and pragmatic regulation.

A new regulator must be flexible, resilient and forward-looking

Traditional regulatory approaches are inadequate in an era of fast-moving technological change. The cross-cutting impact of digital organisations mean sectoral regulation cannot cover all aspects of their operation, whilst the time taken to push Bills through government means direct legislation is unable to keep pace with the rate of technological change. A new regulator must be flexible, resilient and forward-looking to stay relevant. The prevalence of digital services and data across public and private sectors mean this area is inherently political, and a regulator should be at arms-length from government policy.

The wider context in which digital technologies operate is afforded too little attention.

Organisations such as the Information Commissioner’s Office, OFCOM, the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation and the Ada Lovelace Institute operate in this space, but there remains a need for greater scrutiny of the underlying business models and metrics of digital organisations. Existing regulations’ focus on individuals’ security, safety and consent don’t reflect the societal impacts and unintended consequences of digital technologies, and their emphasis on data and artificial intelligence means the wider context in which they operate is afforded too little attention.

This regulatory focus also places much responsibility on the individual to protect their rights, with little onus on encouraging digital organisations to make structural changes to their own practices. The UK has an opportunity post-Brexit to position itself as a global leader in developing regulation that champions the highest ethical standards without stifling innovation. Such standards will mean digital technologies and services will be more safe, accessible and trustworthy, to the benefit of both companies’ bottom lines and society as a whole.

In response to these concerns Doteveryone is developing a White Paper exploring the following questions:

  • Where are the gaps in existing regulation of internet platforms and services, and how can existing initiatives be developed into practical responses?
  • What should an ethical framework and best practice standards for internet companies look like?
  • How can industry, civil society, government and the public best contribute to the effective ongoing development of internet regulation?
  • What organisational structure and regulatory mechanisms would allow a regulator to be responsive to fast-moving technological change?

Over the next month, we wiIl be consulting with thinkers, practitioners and policy makers to understand what effective regulation in the digital age might look like.

If you would like to contribute to this consultation please send your responses to the questions above to hello@doteveryone.org.uk before Monday 30 April.