An impossible promise? Tom Watson says new regulator would break up American tech giants
The Labour Party has made a very bold claim when it revealed that “radical action” was needed to “fix the distorted digital market.”
Tom Watson, Labour’s Deputy Leader and Shadow Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, called for a new regulator and claimed the Labour Party would “ where necessary break up monopolies.”
Labour’s promise to break up firms such as Facebook, Google, or Twitter, will certainly raise a few eyebrows, and matters were not helped when Labour provided virtually no details on how it would achieve a breakup of foreign tech firms mostly headquartered in the United States.
Labour’s Watson believes that this monopolistic power wielded by a few companies is causing serious social harm and subverting democracy.
He cited the case of 14 year old Molly Russell who took her own life after viewing self harm data images on Instagram.
He called for the creation of a new statutory regulator with “the power” to prevent market abuse and break up monopolies.
Watson also wants to introduce a Digital Bill of Rights and a legal Duty of Care to give more powers and protections back to consumers, particularly children.
He also wants Digital Democracy Guarantees – effiectively new rules to protect democracy from online subversion.
The Labour Party pledge comes ahead of the Government’s release of the online harms white paper due at the end of this month.
“Social media is causing and exacerbating mental health problems in children and young people,” the Labour Party said. “The online world has become a haven for hate speech and extremism. Fake news online is undermining trust in democracy and even compromising elections. Algorithms with no human oversight are making significant decisions that affect life chances and what information you see online. Online retailers are undercutting high streets and failing to pay their fair share of taxes.”
Watson believes that at the root of many of these problems is a market distorted by data monopolies.
“Our task is to steer the power of technology back towards the public interest,” said Watson. “Technology responds to the desires of its users, the structure of its market, and to the limits of the law. These things can all be changed. We can’t afford a laissez-faire approach to digital regulation any longer.”
“At the centre of this crisis is an imbalance of power,” said Watson. “Data monopolies and a distorted market. Each year, businesses make billions by extracting and monetising personal data from each and every one of us.”
“And yes, they offer us a service in return,” he said. “But only worth a fraction of the fortune they gain. This is Surveillance Capitalism. The power dynamic between platforms and users has long been lopsided.”
“We need to take more control over how our personal data is collected and monetised through a Data Bill of Rights,” he added. “Customers should benefit from the value of the data we provide and the inferences made from it.”
“I know Silicon Valley companies didn’t set out to undermine democracy. But they didn’t stop it, and they continue to profit from it,” Watson said. “This is a matter of national security. Disinformation divides our society, damages our faith in the media, and distorts electoral outcomes.”
Watson is not the first to promise to tackle social media firms, but he is the first to claim a Labour created regulator would have the power to break up US-based companies.
Earlier this month he UK Parliament’s Science and Technology Committee warned social media firms that they should have a legal “duty of care” to children.
Those MPs also called on the government to establish a new regulator designed to tackle social media companies that break the law.
The amount of time children are spending using tech still causes parents worry.
But last month the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) concluded that there was no good evidence screen time is “toxic” to kids health.
That RCPCH report was the first ever guidance on children’s screen time to be published in the UK, and it found that there “is not enough evidence to confirm that screen time is in itself harmful to child health at any age, making it impossible to recommend age appropriate time limits.”
Instead the guidance suggests parents approach screen time based on the child’s developmental age, the individual need and value the family place on positive activities such as socialising, exercise and sleep.
Last year Apple CEO Tim Cook urged parents to stop children using social media. He has banned his nephew for example from using social networks.