Nadine Dorries’ team at Digital, Culture, Media and Sport has taken the lion’s share of parliamentary time for the next session.
A total of six DCMS bills have been promised. But with doubts about when the next General Election will be called, and the controversial nature of much of the legislation in question, what is realistically expected to become law over the next 12 months? Where might political tensions arise? And what will be the impact on industry?
At the top of the agenda is the Online Safety Bill (OSB). Months of pre-legislative scrutiny and subsequent redrafting meant it couldn’t clear all the required parliamentary stages in the last session. At the 2nd reading in April the Bill was approved unanimously. It is now at Public Bill Committee stage, where Minsters, Shadow Ministers and backbenchers are scrutinizing it line by line, to make sure it is workable – with less political posturing, and more technocratic fine-tuning. This will be carefully managed by the Government, who have a majority on the Committee. However, it is then followed by Report Stage, where MPs who have raised concerns – for example, on ‘legal but harmful’ content, the journalistic and democratic exemptions, or the inclusion or absence of specific harms – could still table amendments; followed by the Lords stages, where Peers could team up with MPs to push the same points. The Government still intends to bring the OSB into law by the end of 2022.
Another carry-over from the previous session, the Product Security Telecommunications and Infrastructure Bill (PSTI) is reaching the end of its Commons stages, before going to the Lords. The first part of PSTI seeks to tackle potential risks from the ‘internet of things’, by placing stronger obligations on product manufacturers towards their users – in some ways, performing a similar role to the OSB, but in the material world. Part 2 of PSTI makes changes to the Electronic Communications Code, to give additional property rights to companies over landowners that host telecommunication networks.
The Government confirmed its intention to sell Channel 4 on 28 April 2022 in the Media Bill White Paper. Independent producers, studios and the wider creative industries, including prospective buyers, will be looking closely at unresolved questions such as the extent to which Channel 4 will remain a public service broadcaster (PSB) that is obliged to provide a distinctive, educational, innovative and experimental programming; and the minimum amount of content it will in future continue to commission from independent producers around the country.
Labour, and indeed many Conservatives, will push for this to be a high bar. At her appearance in front of the DCMS Committee last week, the Secretary of State promised that Channel 4 would remain a PSB for 10 years, raising the question of a subscription service after that: this would be up to the buyer, although Dorries subsequently said that it her opinion, it wouldn’t happen. Many Conservative MPs have already publicly stated their opposition to privatisation, and Lords won’t be bound by the Salisbury Convention, given the sale of Channel 4 was not in the winning 2019 manifesto. Also streaming giants, such as Netflix and Amazon Prime, will have to make sure the content they produce abides by a new ‘Video-on-Demand’ Code. Services in scope should pay attention to which of the provisions of the comprehensive Broadcasting Code will apply to them.
Touted as a ‘Brexit freedom’, the Government has long indicated it wants to do away with GDPR. Industry and parliamentarians from all parties have raised concerns that doing so could threaten the adequacy agreement with the EU. Of particular concern for the industry has been the recommendation of the Taskforce on Innovation, Growth and Regulatory Reform to remove Article 22 of GDPR, which obliges AI data processing to include a ‘human in the loop.’ Adding innovation as well as privacy to the Information Commissioner’s policy objectives shows eagerness to address businesses’ concerns; one measure to look out for in the Bill will be how businesses will be ‘encouraged’ to join the Smart Data portability scheme.
Perhaps the least controversial, and most likely fastest Bill, is this much-needed reform to 1880s trade law. The ETD Bill will allow trade documents, for example in the shipping industry, to be validated online, not just in paper form.
Recent disagreements between Cabinet Ministers raised doubts about the future of the much-promised Digital Markets Bill, and it appears a compromise has been reached by announcing the Bill in ‘draft’ form, fused together with consumer rights legislation from the Business Department. Dorries told the DCMS Committee that the Bill could include final arbitration between news companies and online platforms to pay for journalistic content, but would not be drawn on whether this would be before the next general election.
The Competition and Markets Authority’s Digital Markets Unit has already been operational for several months now and has launched investigations into the tech industry. The Government has finally committed to empowering it, both to place legal obligations on the biggest firms, but also to encourage smaller ones to thrive through merger reporting and user data interoperability. Like the Online Safety Bill, it could go through pre-legislative scrutiny on a Joint Committee of the Lords and Commons, or on an existing Select Committee – therefore with likely a year more until legislation, with much more opportunity for stakeholders to engage in the process.
The Government has confirmed the white paper on the Gambling Act Review will be published in the coming weeks. By not adding a Bill in the Queen’s Speech, expect the Government to be focusing on non-legislative measures seeking to prevent people from losing high amounts of money very quickly through the Gambling Commission’s licencing terms and conditions, or through secondary legislation. This will be a fine balancing act, as there has long been a divide in the Conservative Party between libertarians against gambling rules, and MPs keen to hold gambling businesses to higher levels of social responsibility.
As announced last month, the Government’s response to Tracey Crouch MP’s Football Fan-Led Review was to promise a White Paper, whilst agreeing in principle to implement all of the group’s strategic recommendations – including, crucially, an independent regulator, able to assess whether potential owners pass the ‘fit-and-proper’ test. The recommendation to make the Premier League redistribute more earnings to smaller clubs was not mentioned. The Queen’s Speech has not committed the Government to legislation in this session, so if a Bill is indeed forthcoming, we are not likely to see it until 2023, after the next football season.
Pierre Andrews is a Consultant in Flint’s Policy and Political Analysis team. Prior to joining Flint, Pierre worked for the Chair of the DCMS and Online Safety Bill Committees in Parliament, and graduated in politics and communications at the London School of Economics.
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