Britain has become rather casual about power and the role of regulatorsby Paul Tucker / March 2, 2020 / Leave a comment
Given the noise around British politics, the announcement of new powers for the Office of Communications, widely known as Ofcom, understandably got lost. Understandable maybe, but regrettable because Ofcom is emerging as a potent part of the UK’s system of unelected power.
Its extra new role will be to police socially damaging content published on media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Ofcom will be able, in the final resort, to require them to remove images and text concerning, for example, child abuse, cyber-bullying, extreme violence and terrorism. Introducing such powers lies within the spectrum of reasonable public policy, even if other democratic states end up striking a different balance between free speech and damaged citizens. For all the debate and, no doubt, fierce lobbying those powers will prompt, it is not the only thing that makes Britain’s plan interesting.
Ofcom’s history is of gradually accumulating functions. Some date back to the privatisation of utility industries (gas, electricity, water, and telecoms) a generation ago, when a range of independent agencies, including an Office of Telecommunications (Oftel), were created to promote effective competition. This is, unambiguously, economic regulation, which for telecoms involves licensing use of the electromagnetic spectrum and setting the terms on which the firms can sell their wares. It is complex stuff, calling for subject-specific technical knowledge and expert command of the economics of industrial organisation.
In the early 2000s, Oftel was merged with a number of similar bodies, creating Ofcom. Strikingly, the amalgamation included the old Broadcasting Standards Commission, responsible for overseeing whether the output of independent television and radio networks was too offensive. As well as requiring skills closer to those of a moral philosopher than a micro-economist, this extra mission produced an unusually powerful agency in Ofcom. Around the same time, France decided to keep its own telco-media economic and content regulators separate precisely to avoid creating what, in my book Unelected Power, I call an over-mighty citizen. Given its multiple missions, Ofcom’s directors were, usefully, required to establish a dedicated content board for its regulation of the media’s output, but judging from its published minutes it seems to be advisory, with no formal powers of its own.