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House of Lords calls for new regulatory body to oversee digital content in UK

Calling for "urgent change" following its review into whether "further internet regulation was possible or desirable", The House of Lords is recommending a new regulatory body, the Digital Authority, should regulate "the digital world" in the UK.

The new report, entitled Regulating in a Digital world (via GI.biz), has been prepared by The Select Committee on Communications appointed by the House of Lords. The Committee is tasked "to look at a broad range of communications and broadcasting public policy issues and highlight areas of concern to Parliament and the public".

"The digital world does not merely require more regulation but a different approach to regulation," the report insists. "The key ideas that shape this report are that there should be: (1) an agreed set of 10 principles that shape and frame all regulation of the internet, and (2) a new Digital Authority to oversee this regulation with access to the highest level of the Government to facilitate the urgent change that is needed. In this way the services that constitute the digital world can be held accountable to an agreed and enforceable set of principles."

The 10 principles the committee recommend include ensuring:

  •  the same level of protection must be provided online as offline;
  •  processes must be in place to ensure individuals and organisations are held to account for their actions and policies; 
  • powerful businesses and organisations operating in the digital world must be open to scrutiny; 
  • the internet must remain open to innovation and competition; 
  • the protection of the privacy of individuals; 
  • services must act in the best interests of users and society;
  • protection of the most vulnerable users of the internet, such as children; 
  • safeguarding the freedoms of expression and information online; 
  • people can navigate the digital world safely, and; 
  • accountability, proportionality and evidence-based approach.

The 85-page report also makes several recommendations that would directly impact game makers, too. It suggests digital service providers keep an easily-accessible record of play time, and provide regular prompts to players to discourage excessively long sessions.

"Digital service providers (such as hardware manufacturers, operators of digital platforms, including social media platforms and entertainment platforms, and games developers) should keep a record of time spent using their service which may be easily accessed and reviewed by users, with periodic reminders of prolonged or extended use through pop-up notices or similar," says the report (para. 87) (emphasis our own). "An industry standard on reasonable use should be developed to inform an understanding of what constitutes prolonged use. This standard should guide design so that services mitigate the risk of encouraging compulsive behaviour."

When detailing what, exactly, an online or digital platform is, while acknowledging "[t]here is some uncertainty about the scope of this definition as the uses of online platforms are extremely diverse and still evolving", the committee suggests the definition should include "search engines, marketplaces, social media platforms, gaming platforms and content-sharing platforms".

The recommendation for a new regulator comes as there is currently no single regulatory body that has complete oversight of digital content in the UK. As reported by the BBC, the Lords Communication Committee chairman, Lord Gilbert of Panteg, wants more accountability for tech firms.

"We have become so dependent on a very small number of companies and platforms," Lord Gilbert said. "Tech companies have a special responsibility, yet they have not done enough to reduce online harm. Harmful, anti-social content – available freely on many platforms – is now greater than ever before."

The report comes just days after Scottish MP and department for digital culture, media and sport spokesperson, Hannah Bardell, reported the game Rape Day to Scotland Yard.

Valve confirmed it will not permit the game – which allows players to rape women in a zombie apocalypse – to go on sale on its digital store, Steam. Rather than condemning the game or banning it for its shocking sexual violence content, however, the company said it wouldn’t sell 3D visual novel Rape Day as the game "poses unknown costs and risks" to Valve.

"A game of this nature has no place in our society," Bardell told the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee last week. "I’m glad that it has been pulled by gaming site Steam, but their response was woeful. It did not even accept or acknowledge the risk it could pose. At a time when 1 in 5 women will experience sexual violence in their lives, and in a week when it’s International Women’s Day, will [the DCMS] work with me and others to launch a review into how this game even got to the development and approval stage and make sure it appears on no other platform?"

About Vikki Blake

It took 15 years of civil service monotony for Vikki to crack and switch to writing about games. She has since become an experienced reporter and critic working with a number of specialist and mainstream outlets in both the UK and beyond.

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