On 6 April, the Access Partnership Advisory Board met to discuss three of the most important policy issues businesses and governments face today. The board reaffirmed that technology continues to be a force for good in the world, but the dialogue between government and businesses needs to improve to ensure issues around content, sustainability, and protectionism do not lead to a reduction in quality of life for citizens.
Challenges of Regulating Social Media Platforms
Social media is fundamentally different from traditional media, so existing approaches to regulation have largely failed to achieve their policy goals. Furthermore, the global nature of social media can make it hard to know which national laws apply. One proposed solution is for big social media companies to develop their own principles and procedures. A notable example is Facebook’s Oversight Board of high-profile individuals, which takes decisions using an international human rights mechanism. But it is not certain self-regulatory solutions are sufficient when citizens are increasingly relying on social media for news, making it easier to spread disinformation.
In parallel, governments are beginning to develop rules around content regulation, with the EU’s Digital Services Act (DSA) proposal, the UK’s Online Harms Bill, and the US’s potential update of “Section 230” all proposing mechanisms to moderate content posted on social media platforms. The advisory board suggested that the UK has the potential to be a bridge on this issue between America and Europe, presenting an opportunity for the UK to be an “honest broker” in this dialogue.
However, the advisory board also fears that more stringent content regulations could hurt small businesses and the Internet ecosystem. Big Tech companies have armies of lawyers and content reviewers, but smaller businesses and ordinary websites cannot afford to prescreen every comment that goes online. A potential solution is “moderation-as-a-service” tools, which could screen out harmful content, but only if regulators can be convinced the tools are effective.
Road to COP26
The 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26), which will take place in Glasgow from 1 to 12 November 2021. Sustainability has become a benchmark of business credibility for employees, customers, investors and regulators. The road to COP26 provides multiple international and local policy-based opportunities to engage these critical stakeholder groups and to tell your sustainability story. Businesses should use the conference to publicise their sustainability commitments, harnessing policy momentum and policymaker good will. With the risk that COP26 could swiftly lead to new laws promoting sustainability, businesses should take immediate steps to clarify their policy positions on sustainability, while providing guidance to government on how regulation can best incentive the decarbonization of supply chains.
The board noted that there has been little engagement from the tech sector in the preparations for COP26. COVID-19 recovery efforts have dominated attention, from increasing cost efficiencies to accelerating digital transformation and bringing innovative solutions to market. Diversity is also a bigger focus for US companies, following the dramatic events of last year.
However, the board also suggests that this approach ignores the way sustainability interconnects with other policy priorities for governments. Economic recovery following the COVID-19 pandemic will be tied to decarbonization and governments and policymakers will expect tech companies to not only reduce their own emissions but also provide leadership and practical technological solutions to decarbonise the entire economy.
Sustainability also goes hand in hand with other social justice agendas such as diversity. Increasingly, customers want to support, and employees want to work for sustainable companies, while investors require companies to disclose how they have adopted or plan to incorporate business practices consistent with the sustainable use and management of natural capital. The board was clear in its view that companies that take action today will be better prepared for the tougher sustainability requirements that governments, investors, customers, and employees will expect in the near future.
Digital Sovereignty Here to Stay
The depth and scale of the challenge to address business risks associated with digital sovereignty is accelerating, likely to change the world in the next five to ten years. Jurisdictions such as the EU, previously open to foreign business, are now energetically promoting protectionist narratives. China has formally unveiled its ambition to become a global technology leader with indigenous innovation as its core driver. The new Biden Administration will be more open to dialogue, but law enforcement focused on supply chain protection and concerns about cybersecurity will prevail. Slow COVID-19 vaccine rollout in many parts of the world has also generated mistrust of global supply chains.
The risk of being shut out of markets can be addressed by developing the narrative around local goals, finding local champions, showing economic investment and job creation and demonstrating that domestic capabilities are not yet sufficient for a country or region to rely solely on local industry.
The complexity of the problem presents an opportunity for the EU, US, and UK to exchange best practice. However, the EU will try to remain on good terms with both China and the US, avoiding taking sides if possible. Digital sovereignty imperatives risk damaging outcome for citizens if they are unable to access cutting edge technology, and all stakeholders will need to be open to ongoing dialogue to address the intensifying rhetoric and avoid the damaging outcomes that will come from creeping protectionism.