Recess reflections – Where does the UK stand on digital policy?

Summer recess has arrived in the UK Parliament. While politicians take a breath until September, we reflect on a busy year for some of the UK’s flagship digital policies, and assess the UK’s digital strategy and what might be next for digital policy when Parliament returns to business.


Online Safety Bill

Lauded ‘world-first’ and ‘trailblazing’, the UK’s Online Safety Bill has been the showpiece of the UK Government’s digital agenda since it was first introduced in early 2022.

Regarded as a test of what the UK stands for as it begins to chart its independent path after leaving the EU, the Bill became an attempt for the country’s post-Brexit successive Prime Ministers to demonstrate the UK’s maintained leadership and rulemaking by becoming a global frontrunner in creating a safer internet, regulating tech giants, ensuring fair online competition, and preserving freedom of speech.

But that’s a tall order for achieving consensus within an increasingly divided sector. Contextualised by public tensions between online corporations and campaigning groups on how to draw the line of legality on powers of self-policing and levels of protection online, the Bill has repeatedly been mired by internal tensions in successive Conservative governments – whether former Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s yo-yoing between supporting tougher rules and adhering to his preference for free speech, former Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Secretary Oliver Dowden’s accused lack of digital drive, or Kemi Badenoch’s damning dismissal of the Bill while contesting the Tory leadership. Not forgetting the dramatic rearrangement of the government’s digital civil service, with the divorce of digital from the now-Department of Culture, Media and Sport, and its resettlement in the shiny new Department of Science, Innovation and Technology (with the accompanying administrative headache!).

All this has led to consistent delays to the Bill, which will now go into the summer inconclusively. So, when will the online safety bill become law? That remains uncertain. It will most certainly return in the autumn, but with the next general election period rapidly approaching and pressures on the Conservative leadership to unite the party behind a sustained push to remain in office, how far the Bill will sit up Rishi Sunak’s priority list might be questioned further by the day.


Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill

Standing alongside the Online Safety Bill, the more recent Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill focuses on reforming competition and consumer protection laws, in tandem with strengthened regulation of digital markets.

Aiming to rein in the dominance of ‘Big Tech’ in digital markets while ensuring that customers of these markets are properly protected, the Bill proposes to bump up the power of the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) and of the comms regulator, Ofcom.

Undoubtedly, major tech giants will feel the brunt of the new legislation most strongly (if passed). Warnings have already been cast that the significant influence of these big players in Westminster poses the risk that the Bill’s ambition will be watered down, but significant support for the Bill from the UK’s SMEs and challengers, as well as consumer groups such as Which?, is matched by push from Labour – especially Shadow Small Business Minister Seema Malhotra – for strengthened consumer protection measures.

Success of the Bill will depend on compromise. The resulting regime will need enough muscle to keep Big Tech in check, without incentivising such corporations to push back too hard against it. Regardless, with voters more aware than ever of the importance of government support in regulated sectors (thanks to the fallout of the cost-of-living crisis), we can expect to see consumer rights feature more and more heavily as the Bill evolves in the autumn.


Artificial Intelligence

When it comes to artificial intelligence (AI), Rishi Sunak is attempting to straddle two sides of AI policy: that the UK should foster technological innovation, but that the UK should also become a key proponent of AI regulation.

An attempt to steady this balance, the Government’s recent ‘pro-innovation approach to AI regulation’ white paper sets out a roadmap to position AI regulation as a catalyst for new research, innovation, and deployment of AI, while minimising any associated risks.

With the consultation on the AI white paper now closed, the government’s response is expected, with the summer an opportunity for the government to take stock of initial responses to its proposals and either reinforce or reconsider them. Undoubtedly, businesses will have further opportunities to feed into this process when Parliament returns (and they ought to engage with the process as much as possible), and, with the new Office for Artificial Intelligence now operating in full force, time will tell whether AI will be given further prominence in the government’s legislative agenda when Parliament returns.


What’s next for UK digital policy?

All eyes now turn to the King’s Speech in the autumn. The establishment of the new Department for Science, Innovation and Technology may have been an administrative headache for most that work around Whitehall, but it implies a refreshed prioritisation of online policy by the current government. With five priorities that span research and development investment, innovating public services, strengthening international collaboration and driving legislative and regulatory reforms, we can expect online and digital policy to remain at the forefront of the government’s agenda for 2023-24, as well as a key area for policy reform outside of legislation.

As for Labour, draft proposals to grow the economy by developing UK supply chains in 5G technology, preserving the UK’s data protection rules and updating the intellectual property regime are set against more protective proposals to strengthen online consumer protection regulation, address the digital divide, and ensure workers have new rights to match technological advancements. Calls from Shadow Digital Secretary Lucy Powell reflect this balance, who frames broadband policy within the language of the cost of living crisis, and with a focus on the end users of broadband contracts and internet access. Further detail on Powell’s pledged “new settlement for the digital age” remains to be seen (and Labour’s draft proposals are far from confirmed) but the emphasis outlined by Labour on making digital and AI policy work equally for businesses, workers, users, and state is almost certainly to remain at the forefront of their policy development and future stakeholder engagement.

Until the autumn, businesses and other organisations now have a chance to take stock, reflect on how relevant policies have progressed, and consider how to ensure their voice is heard when the debate resumes in September. With both the Conservatives and Labour at a volatile point of formulating the digital policy proposals, the next parliamentary session will be a crucial time to build relationships with political stakeholders, establish yourself as an accredited voice, input into policy development processes, and ensure that new regulations and policies benefit from your expertise and experience. Get in touch to find out more.


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