1.On Wednesday 22 January, we hosted a workshop to discuss the challenges that regulators face in adapting to the digital environment, particularly in the context of digital campaigning. The event was organised by our specialist adviser, sponsored by the journal Political Quarterly and held in Collaboration with the Turing Institute and the Crick Centre for the Public Understanding of Politics. Professor Helen Margetts, Professor of Internet and Society at the Oxford Internet Institute and Director of the Public Policy Programme at The Alan Turing Institute, chaired the event.
2.The workshop was attended by just under 30 individuals who work within regulatory bodies or government, companies, or charities.
3.Presentations were made by Dr Kate Dommett, the Committee’s specialist adviser, Ravi Naik, the Committee’s legal adviser and Chris Gorst from Nesta.
4.Dr Dommett’s presentation provided an overview of the current debates about the regulation of digital campaigning, including the range of legislative proposals made around digital campaigning and the focus hitherto on how the powers of regulators need to grow. Dr Dommett highlighted how less attention had been given to the issue of regulator capacity and how regulators themselves need to adapt, change and upskill in order to be able to adapt to regulation in a digital arena. Dr Dommett stressed the need to not only consider questions such as how regulation could occur and how regulators themselves could be equipped to adapt their regulatory capacities.
5.Ravi Naik highlighted several simple fixes that could be made to electoral law to boost transparency. He argued that in the future there will be a need to focus regulation on the accountability of platforms and data use. He also suggested that there is a need to think further about current enforcement deficits within the regulatory landscape, stressing the need for regulators to have an effective set of sanctions to enforce.
6.Chris Gorst from Nesta spoke about the need for anticipatory regulation and Nesta’s work in this area. He noted that the UK is a well-regulated country but diagnosed a tendency to identify specific problems and develop regulatory solutions in silos. He argued that there was a need to update regulators created in a pre-digital era to the digital world, yet it was necessary to ensure that any future system was both good at protecting from risk but did not prevent social innovation and the benefits this can deliver.
7.Attendees then discussed the issues that had been raised by the speakers. The conversation first covered collaboration, both in terms of the need for regulators to work more closely with industry, and with one another. There was discussion of the need for shared resources and expertise and for more inter-regulator discussion and collaboration. One contributor proposed an Office for Responsible Technology to sit across Government and promote collaboration. There were few examples of places where regulators could meet to exchange and discuss ideas. Promoting inter-regulator collaboration was seen to be easy where there were clear overlaps in interests, but harder where regulatory responsibilities were unclear.
8.There was also discussion of regulators’ ability to adapt and how this could be affected by regulatory remit and statutory foundation.
9.There was an acknowledgment from regulators that they often wanted to do more but were curtailed by a limited remit and small budget. This meant that regulators often focused on performing core functions and had less capacity to pursue collaboration and horizon scanning activities.
10.There was seen to be a need to give regulators more power and to ensure clear mechanisms for ensuring accountability. Enforcement and accountability were not just seen to be online issues: offline examples of misinformation can also carry few penalties so there was a need to think further about enforcement, penalties and how to hold actors to account.
11.Budget was seen to be a limiting condition on regulatory behaviour, but there was a consensus that some action could be taken without additional resource–one possibility was thinking about reconfiguring the regulatory landscape to work more effectively. This potentially linked to increased collaboration.
12.It was argued that there was a need to determine the aims of regulation, and what it is that any regulation is seeking to protect.