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Catherine Miller

Director of policy at Doteveryone

Regulating for responsible technology: a new system for a fairer future

Regulation was once a tech taboo. Now it has advocates in the unlikeliest quarters.

“I believe in the free market deeply,” said Apple CEO Tim Cook last week. But “when the free market doesn’t produce a result that’s good for society, you have to ask yourself: What do we need to do? And I think some level of government regulation is important”.

The scramble is now on to work out what ‘some level’ of regulation looks like.  Initiatives are proliferating. And after his predecessor got fed up with being snubbed by self-regulating tech companies, the new Secretary of State for Digital Culture Media and Sport, Jeremy Wright is preparing a White Paper on new rules for the internet.

It’s rare to find the forces of business, government and civil society all aligning around a common hunger to regulate. And it’s vital that we don’t blow this propitious moment with opportunistic ‘something must be done’ stunts.

Today Doteveryone publishes Regulating for Responsible Technology – proposals for systematic change to the way that we regulate digital technologies. Our aim is to switch from haphazard attempts to whack-a-mole harms – from social media levies, to age verification for porn to limiting screen time for kids – towards a forward-looking approach to regulation that directs technologies for the public good.

To do this we recommend establishing a new, independent body, the Office for Responsible Technology. The Office will sit above the existing regulatory system and will have three responsibilities: to empower regulators; inform policymakers and the public about the benefits and harms of technology; and help people seek redress from technology-driven harms.

As a steward for the system, this body will lead independent reviews of all regulators’ powers and resources and recommend where they should be updated or what new organisations are required. This will allow it to settle immediate problems like the ‘standards lottery’ around social media content that Ofcom’s CEO Sharon White highlighted last month – but also allows for across-the-board reform of the UK’s 90 regulators.

From the Competition and Markets Authority to the Electoral Commision, our research found most regulators are struggling to adapt to the existing impacts of technological change, let alone anticipate future challenges. That’s why we also give the Office responsibilities for foresight on emerging issues and a hub of tech experts who will collaborate on how to adapt regulators’ work for a digital world.

The second role of the Office for Responsible Technology is to create credible evidence on the benefits and harms of technology. Currently, politicians invent initiatives based on the experiences of their adolescent children. Meanwhile, tech companies’ own attempts to address harms fail to convince because there’s no benchmark to measure against. It’s time to switch from anecdote-based to evidence-based policymaking in tech.

So the Office will co-ordinate timely research to underpin and evaluate policy – but also to help the public with clear, understandable guidance. Doteveryone’s People, Power and Technology survey found the public struggles to understand how technologies work and though 92% would like a single source of information about their online rights, only 28% know where to go to for help.

Finally, the Office will help people to hold their tech providers to account. Money Saving Expert Martin Lewis’ frustration with Facebook’s response to his complaints about the use of his image in fake ads is emblematic of the digital disempowerment the public faces. We recommend the Office has the power to audit tech complaints procedures and provide backstop mediation where needed.

These three functions – capacity, evidence and redress – create a resilient infrastructure for regulation to test and learn so that it can grow and adapt alongside digital technologies. The recommendations we make are both practical and implementable.

So let’s seize the momentum to tackle technology – and use it to make change that is both radical and sustainable. That way we can tackle our problems today, and the ones we don’t yet know lie around the corner.

Catherine Miller is Director of Policy at Doteveryone, a think tank that champions responsible technology for a fairer future.