Chief Executives from a number of the UK’s top broadcasters and telcos this weekend called on the government to establish an independent regulator to oversee social media companies. In a joint letter to the Sunday Times, Sky CEO Jeremy Darroch, BBC director-general Lord Hall of Birkenhead, ITV chief executive Carolyn McCall, Channel 4 CEO Alex Mahon, BT chief executive Gavin Patterson and TalkTalk CEO Tristia Harrison argued that there is “an urgent need for independent scrutiny of the decisions taken” by the tech giants.
The signatories pointed to a White Paper on internet safety due to be released this autumn as a “golden opportunity” for the government to address problems like fake news and child exploitation, which they said are “exacerbated by social media”. They echoed the view of Ofcom chief executive Sharon White that the establishment of an independent regulator to oversee digital companies would be an effective way to tackle these problems, saying that “the argument for independent regulatory oversight of major online players has never been stronger”.
The chief executives also drew a parallel to the regulation they themselves face, and while they didn’t directly call out any specific companies, they hinted at some of the major criticisms that the likes of Google and Amazon have faced as further incentives for action. “We represent diverse media or communications companies and collectively invest significantly in British infrastructure and content,” the letter said. “We pay high and fair levels of tax, and we are all regulated by Ofcom.”
Several of those who signed the letter have previously made similar calls on the government to take action against the US tech giants, and Darroch in particular has been vocal about the imbalance between the regulation traditional media companies have to comply with and the comparative lack of oversight for digital media companies.
A government spokesman responded to the letter, but without indicating whether the government would be willing to establish a new regulatory body. “We have been clear that more needs to be done to tackle online harms, said the spokesman. “We are committed to further legislation.” The government had however mentioned the establishment of an independent regulator as a possible approach to tackling problems associated with social media in its response to the Green Paper on internet safety released last year.
Even if the government ends up deciding to take a different approach, it certainly has shown sympathy to traditional media companies’ frustrations with the tech giants, and is considering taking action on several fronts. The Cairncross Review, which seeks to assess whether high quality journalism is sustainable in the new media landscape, today headed to Brussels to collect evidence on how tech companies and digital advertising have affected news businesses across Europe.
“The challenges facing the press are not unique to the UK and it is vital that my Review listens to the experiences of other countries,” said Dame Frances Cairncross. “I look forward to learning more in Brussels about the questions industry and policy makers are grappling with and the solutions they are considering to ensure the future of the free press is protected.”