Sky Jeremy Darroch on the digital Wild West: time for tech giants to experience the formal scrutiny or regulation of media companies

Opinion piece from Jeremy Darroch Group Chief Executive, Sky

Originally published in The Times on Tuesday 28 November 2017

Isleworth, United Kingdom, 30-Nov-2017 — /EuropaWire/ — Every day new headlines are written about inappropriate video appearing on YouTube, about fake news or Russian funded political ads on Facebook or the vile abuse poured out on Twitter. European policy makers recently went as far as calling the internet a “digital wild west” yet we seem no closer to any demonstrable change in attitude or approach from the tech giants to protect society from these harms.

With every new exposé these platforms promise to do more. They promise they will do better. Yet they continue to profit from what they publish and the cycle starts again. Policy makers bang the table. The media continue to expose wrongs. Society watches, at times, with disgust. The tech companies grow in value.

It is surely about time we asked why there is no regulation where there is the risk of such serious harm?

Not so many years ago, internet companies were small and pretty un-influential. Today they are publishing powerhouses and some of the largest companies on the planet with a reach and scale of financial resources far exceeding that of traditional media companies

Yet they experience none of the formal scrutiny or regulation of those companies.

For businesses like Sky, we are faced with one set of rules governing what we publish while global tech companies, whose content appears on many of the same screens or devices, take no responsibility for what is uploaded to their platforms and often only cursory responsibility for removing illegal content when informed of it.

While we all recognise the many benefits the internet brings only now is society waking up to the risks. That’s why it’s no longer good enough to say the internet is untouchable and beyond the norms that the rest of our society has to operate to.

The communications sector in which Sky operates is heavily regulated – we meet the responsibilities expected of businesses in our democratic society. We work within the boundaries of the law and employ the people and incur the costs to do so. If we break the rules, like any other business or individual, we are punished. Those are the rules of the game set by Parliament and it’s the environment that we have all competed in for decades. Compliance with rules is not a burden but a stamp of quality and trust.

But when paying taxes, employing people and complying with the law are competitive disadvantages, you know that you have a problem.

That is why I believe policy makers can tackle some of the challenges posed by the unregulated internet by adopting lessons from the world of television.

When it comes to broadcasting, regulation is seen as a valuable condition that guarantees to viewers and advertisers that content is safe and trustworthy. Broadcasters have to adhere to certain standards and are then judged on whether and how they met these standards. This is not the censorship that opponents to internet rules like to claim. Preserving freedom of expression is built into the rules.

Internet companies continue to claim that they have community standards to protect their users, but when it comes down to whether they enforce these standards, how much they invest in safety or whether harmful content is still on their platforms we only have their word for proof. They are subject to no oversight, no transparency and no accountability.

Continual examples of inappropriate content show that these companies should no longer be allowed to mark their own homework. Some type of rigorous, independent oversight must be put in place to make sure the tech giants are accountable for their promises.

I am not suggesting regulation of the internet, which is fraught with complexity and risks getting bogged down in a much larger debate, but simply and quickly establishing a set of principles of accountability that meet societal norms and can be put in place with oversight, in much the same way that Ofcom requires broadcasters to comply with principles governing the way content is made available on TV.

This would bring the same rigor to the internet that enables TV to be a safe and trusted space. A basic set of standards governing safety and privacy online, which would cover matters such as political advertising or marketing to children should surely be more than just an ambition.

Most business around the world have to play by a set of rules that meet society’s expectations. These same businesses ensure compliance or face sanctions – like not being able to market their services or face fines. Why should the tech companies be any different?

Policy makers have a choice; they can set an example and make the internet a safer more responsible place, rather than the wild west it has become, or they can continue to put online safety in the too hard basket.


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