What Prohibition teaches us about regulating the internet

Thursday 16 January 2020

Jeremy Darroch, Group Chief Executive, Sky - First published in The Times on 16 January 2020

This week’s 100th year anniversary of the Volstead Act outlawing the manufacture and sale of alcohol in the US has attracted plenty of commentary.

The failure of the ban on an activity that countless millions enjoy and benefit from is well understood. But the self-evident lesson from Prohibition is not that all rules are bad. In the years after its lifting, as the social harms caused by alcohol were better understood, specific targeted laws addressing manufacture, labelling, age-restriction and advertising were established that are widely accepted and well-observed.

Today the internet is at a similar cross-road to that of alcohol 100 years ago.

When historians look back on the first two decades of this century, the sustained rise of the internet and widespread adoption of consumer technology will be the one thread that continues to redefine every aspect of society. From reading the news to keeping in touch with friends, managing our money to occupying our free time – technology that is owned, developed and run by a handful of online platforms in Silicon Valley dominates our lives on an unstoppable scale.

We also now know better the downside of their effect on our lives. From financial scams and theft to extremism, violent content and racism, all of us have experienced the darker side of the web. According to Ofcom social media sites are the most commonly cited source of online harm.

Yet, amazingly, twenty years after they emerged, there are virtually no laws governing the behaviour of these companies in the UK, across Europe or around the world.

Technology can and has brought massive benefit to society, I know that from first-hand experience in my own sector of media and entertainment. However, unlike social media platforms, broadcasters and internet service providers are subject to regulatory frameworks that set standards and prevent harm to consumers and society.

If the current approach of ‘anything goes’ when it comes to regulation of these online platforms continues, it could prove to be this century’s Prohibition moment when – after years of inaction - the need and public outcry to act becomes so urgent that legislation is passed that is unspecific, unenforceable and leads to even more damaging unintended consequences.

However, history doesn’t need to repeat itself.

The UK Government has already committed to act in manifestos in 2017 and 2019. We have had extensive government consultations on preventing specific online harms, and there is clear cross party and public support for a new regulatory regime that will apply the law online as it is offline.

Indeed, over two years have passed since Sky commissioned an independent report into platform accountability and online harms, which proposed a framework with an independent regulator at its heart.

Yet we still haven’t seen anything change.

And the promise of self-regulation hasn’t worked. We need only look back to the prolific spread of misinformation, online abuse and fake news in last months’ general election to see the damage that unregulated online platforms are doing to our society.

Figures released by the NSPCC reveal more than 25,000 child abuse image and sexual grooming offences have occurred since the publication of the Government’s Online Harms White Paper 9 months ago.

Clearly the time to act is now.

This week, Lord McNally presented his own bill in the House of Lords to address this issue.

His idea is simple - kick off the long overdue process by empowering Ofcom to prepare a duty of care obligation for online platforms, overseen by an independent and evidenced-based regulator.

He is right to inject some urgency. A lot of the thinking has been done by Government and also some excellent work by the Carnegie Trust, supported by organisations like the NSPCC. This is not a knee-jerk reaction to a few headlines. And it’s not a path that will lead to the unintended consequences of censorship, curtailing innovation or positioning the UK as an enemy of tech investment.

In fact, if managed correctly, this is a real opportunity for an emboldened, outward-looking global Britain to show the world what good regulation and management of public policy issues can look like.

I would like to see the Government follow Lord McNally in introducing its own Bill, as a matter of urgency. That’s why, today, we have written to MPs across the country to ask them for their support in establishing an independent regulator that will finally tackle online harms.

Politicians need to set the strategic direction while leaving the oversight of online platforms to an independent, trusted and evidenced based body.

That way we will learn the lesson of Prohibition, with a targeted and proportionate response to today’s pressing social issues before it is too late.