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The Digital Regulation Cooperation Forum: working for greater cooperation in regulating online platforms

Published: 10 November 2021
Last updated: 16 March 2023

Kate Davies, Ofcom's Public Policy Director, explains why regulators are working together to meet the digital challenge.

The Digital Regulation Cooperation Forum (DRCF) was formed in 2020, with the aim of bringing about greater cooperation to address the unique challenges posed by regulating online platforms.

The forum was formed by Ofcom, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) and the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO). The Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) was an observer member of the DRCF since its outset and joined as a full member from April 2021.

Regulators in the UK have always worked together. There are areas of our work where we have formal arrangements to work with the CMA on competition issues and we have a relationship with the ICO when it comes to nuisance and silent calls. A couple of years ago a number of us started to recognise that digital challenges would require even more joined up solutions. And joining up right across our remits – so thinking about how privacy, competition and content concerns might all interact as we start to regulate social media, rather than thinking about one or two of these issues on a bilateral basis.

‘Digital’ is not just one sector. Digital platforms and companies reach into every area of the economy and the nature of their business models mean competition, privacy and content issues, interact and amplify each other in ways not seen in other industries. If you add to that the new skills needed to regulate in these areas, the pace of change, and the global businesses with which we need to engage, it becomes clear that regulators can’t really go it alone.

So, we created a space where we could make a step change in how we join up. We wanted to act now and so we established the forum on a voluntary basis, bringing together regulators for whom digital regulation is core to their remit and actively asking ourselves where we should be joining up for the benefit of industry and users.

Our workplan, published in March of this year, seeks to establish clarity on how we achieve this step change in coordination. From understanding the privacy and safety implications of encryption technologies, unearthing the cross-cutting policy concerns around algorithmic processing, to exploring how digital design can harm or benefit consumers in relation to all the issues we’re engaged with: privacy; choice; competition; and content. The workplan signals a true shift in regulatory coordination and a commitment from the members to explore practically how specific regimes interact and how we can improve outcomes for consumers and businesses.

It's clear that regulators can't really go it alone

Although the workplan represents the start of DRCF in many ways it was in fact the end of the initial phase. In the preceding year, Ofcom, the ICO and the CMA started to engage more closely to work through where regulatory interactions might come to the fore, and how we wanted to work with each other to meet this challenge head on. It was brilliant to be in Ofcom for the start of this process – as the communications regulator we have to engage with the questions that online services raise right across our sectors – be it in relation to the 'discoverability' of public service media, the risks of harmful and illegal content being distributed over video sharing platforms’ or the increasing role of tech giants in the telecoms value chain. And it’s this acknowledgement of how communications are increasingly digital or online that has led Ofcom to champion the DRCF.

And we are already seeing some of the fruits of our labour. With the recent publication of our guidance for video sharing platforms, we made it very clear that we need to provide clarity for industry and users on how our regime fits with the ICO’s Age Appropriate Design Code. What will both regimes do to better embed age assurance to protect younger users? How will we ensure that our approaches are complementary and that individuals and businesses know who to go to? Being able to provide answers to these questions speaks to why we established the DRCF and provides a great opportunity to prove the value of joining up.

We are also progressing our work to look at a range of different technological developments. We are engaging stakeholders over the next few months to look at the impacts of algorithmic processing and the range of regulatory tools available to evaluate those impacts. It may be that different regulatory regimes require different approaches to algorithms, but this work will help us all to build a collective view of the issues and the options and where and when different tools can be best deployed.

And as we look to the future we are already identifying new issues we want to dig into. I expect the key question will be how we engage internationally. We’re all building regulatory networks to learn as we take on new duties to regulate global players, but the question of what it means to engage as a cross-regulatory forum is still a little untested. If we can find a way to effectively reach across domestic and international borders – just as the tech giants themselves have done – then we will all benefit.

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