Justin Welby, the archbishop of Canterbury, has backed calls for a new regulator to control technology firms and their collection and use of personal data.
A regulator such as this might overlap areas currently controlled by existing regulators.
In an interview with the BBC, he said the regulator would monitor technology giants such as Facebook and Google to ensure they were using people’s data in a socially responsible way.
"They have enormous power and the use and handling of data has huge implications for people's security," he told the BBC. "But it also has huge implications for the flourishing of individuals and the prosperity and fairness of our society."
He was speaking following the release of a report from the IPPR thinktank’s Commission on Economic Justice today.
The report, "Prosperity and Justice: a plan for the new economy", argues that the economy is not working for millions of people as average earnings have stagnated, young people are set to be poorer than their parents and there is diverging wealth between the different regions and nations of the UK.
The authors say they are not calling for redistribution of wealth but rather a fundamental reform of how the economy works that will lead to a fairer system. They say the ten-point plan, containing more than 70 recommendations, would rebalance economic power.
In line with many economic thinkers, it warns that monopolistic market power is bad for consumers, companies and nations by raising prices, depressing wages and stifling innovation.
It says the most concentrated markets are in the digital economy as big technology companies leverage vast amounts of data while blocking other companies from accessing that data.
The current model for regulating markets, embodied in the Competitions and Market Authority (CMA), is not sufficient to control these new companies, the report says. It recommends that the CMA should expand its remit to confront excessive market power that damages the public interest in addition to its current remit of promoting consumer welfare and economic efficiency.
The report also calls for the creation of a new regulator, the Office of Digital Platforms (OfDigi). It would act in the same capacity as utility regulators such as OfGem, OfWat and OfCom to regulate companies above a certain threshold size as determined by the CMA.
Potential functions of OfDigi include:
- Protect net neutrality
- Enforce greater data transparency and controls on the use of personal data
- Impose open standards to reduce barriers to entry for competitors
- Enable greater data portability
- Require companies to maintain audit logs of data they feed into algorithms and be prepared to explain the algorithms to the public on demand
- Establish a duty of care for social media platforms, requiring them to ensure minimum standards around published content
The paper calls for the creation of a digital commons to ensure data is open and available for a variety of ends and policed by an enforceable legal regime. Over time, it would like to work toward open data sets, requiring digital utilities to share data while maintaining people’s personal privacy.
"It would ensure stringent privacy and security standards were met, enable the standardisation and interoperability of data, expand the digital services provided by government and coordinate the management of data infrastructures to make more data open and accessible," the report said.
It also calls on local authorities to "reimagine the generation and use of data" to streamline the delivery of local services, encourage greater civic activity and provide opportunities for local business.
"We are very aware of the growing interest in and scrutiny of digital markets. We've already done a lot of work in this area," a CMA spokesperson told SC. "Online markets are a priority for us and we’ve recently invested to expand our resources and expertise in the digital space."
The CMA submitted written evidence, published in June, to the House of Lords Communications Committee hearing on "The internet: to regulate or not to regulate?" in which is made the point that online businesses are obligated to obey market rules just like any other business.
"The challenge for enforcers, therefore, is to better understand the new market contexts, features and behaviours in the online economy and whether, how – and how effectively – existing rules apply in them," it said in its submission.
However, it acknowledged there were concerns. "The continued growth of the online, data-driven economy and of wider digitalisation may raise broader social or other public policy issues. Competition laws may not be well placed, or indeed intended, to address those harms, which may be matters for other enforcers (for example the Information Commissioner’s Office in relation to privacy issues) or for government or legislative intervention (for example to tackle online hate speech or introduce additional protections for media plurality)," the CMA said in its written evidence.
Egil Bergenlind, CEO and founder of DPOrganizer which was recently listed in Wired Magazine’s list of 100 hottest European startups, supports the creation of a digital utilities regulator. "The government needs to step in and enforce this – as has been done previously with utilities," he said.
He said most businesses had not succeeded in building data-driven services that respect the integrity of personal information, but the creation of a ‘digital commonwealth’, as recommended by the IPPR report, might be a step in the right direction.
"I believe and hope that we will see a real shift in the control of data, where consumers come out on top," he said. "GDPR was a huge step in the right direction but will become quickly outdated."