The UK is moving ahead with a plan to regulate big tech, responding to competition concerns over a ‘winner takes all’ dynamic in digital markets. It will set up a new Digital Market Unit (DMU) to oversee a “pro-competition” regime for Internet platforms including those funded by online advertising, such as Facebook and Google the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) announced on November 27th.

It’s moving at a clip, with the new Unit slated to begin work in April. Although the necessary law to empower the new regulator to make interventions will take longer. The government said it will consult on the Unit’s form and function in early 2021 and legislate “as soon as parliamentary time allows” A core part of the plan is a new statutory Code of Conduct aimed at giving platform users more choice and third party businesses more power over the intermediaries that host and monetize them.

The government suggests the code could require tech giants to allow users to opt-out of behavioural advertising entirely something Facebook’s platform, for example, does not currently allow. It also wants the code to support the sustainability of the news industry by “rebalancing” the relationship between publishers and platform giants, as it puts it.

Concern over how to support quality public interest journalism in an era of ad-funded user-generated-content giants has been stepping up in recent years as online disinformation has been actively weaponized to attack democracies and try to influence voters. “The new code will set clear expectations for platforms that have considerable market power known as strategic market status over what represents acceptable behaviour when interacting with competitors and users,” DCMS writes in a press release.
It suggests the DMU will have powers to “suspend, block and reverse decisions of tech giants, order them to take certain actions to achieve compliance with the code, and impose financial penalties for non-compliance”. Although full details are yet to be worked out next year

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The task force will also come up with the methodology that’s used to determine which platforms/companies should be designated as having strategic market status. On that front it’s all but certain Facebook and Google will gain the designation, and be subject to the code and oversight by the DMU, although confirmation can only come from the Unit itself once it’s up and running. But UK policymakers don’t appear to have been fooled by bogus big tech talking points of competition being ‘only a click away’.

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The new code could also affect the media industry, which has lost much of its advertising revenues to Facebook and Google. The new code will attempt to govern commercial arrangements between publishers and platforms to help keep publishers in the business. It will try to stop online platforms from imposing unfair terms on news publishers that limit their ability to monetize their content.

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