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Ofcom, CMA urge UK government to fill online regulation gap

Representatives from Ofcom, the U.K. watchdog responsible for telecoms, broadcast TV and radio regulation, and the Competition and Markets Authority urged the government to fill gaps in regulation for internet companies.

Speaking during a House of Lords Communications Committee hearing Oct. 9, the regulators said that in light of concerns regarding fake news and online extremism, U.K. legislators can do more to reign in big companies that provide internet-based services.

Andrea Coscelli, CEO of the Competition and Markets Authority, or CMA, told committee members that the responsibility for addressing gaps in regulation sits with the government. He also downplayed the need for a new regulatory body tasked with overseeing online players.

While there is no specific U.K. regulator for online companies, including Facebook Inc., Twitter Inc. or Alphabet Inc.'s YouTube, there are coordinated efforts in place involving the Information Commissioner's Office for data protection and privacy, Ofcom for on-demand TV content, and the Advertising Standards Authority for online ads. The CMA, meanwhile, will be given full oversight of competition law complaints normally left to the European Commission after Brexit.

"There is a lot of ongoing coordination [but] what worries me are the gaps in regulation, as opposed to lack of bodies coordinating," Coscelli said.

Kevin Bakhurst, group director of Content and Media Policy at Ofcom, echoed this view, adding that legislation had not always kept up with the fast pace of change in the online environment, creating a tendency for reactive rather than proactive enforcement. "Whatever the government decides, there needs to be some form of regulation to enable it to be flexible and reactive [and] to keep looking ahead and not be regulating for yesterday's problems," he said.

The hearing is part of a U.K. Parliament inquiry into online regulation and whether existing laws are adequate. It was launched this year and the Committee plans to report its findings before the end of 2018.

So far, European legislators have ruled against the idea that self-regulation by tech companies is sufficient to safeguard the internet, particularly when it comes to the task of removing illegal content. Under new anti-terrorism measures, for example, failure to remove terrorist content within an hour could cost an online platform operating in Europe up to 4% of its global turnover for the last business year.

The European Parliament also recently voted in favor of imposing a minimum 30% quota for European content on Netflix Inc., Amazon.com Inc. and other streaming services. At the hearing, Bakhurst said this was a step toward bringing on-demand content closer to the "highest standards" held by broadcasters.