Arriving in 2021, the UK's Digital Markets Unit 'could' start to do something about the power of online ad giants

But Parliament seems a bit busy at the moment to legislate


The UK government has announced plans to set up a Digital Markets Unit (DMU) to level the advertising playing field currently dominated by the likes of Google and Facebook.

It's been a while coming. An investigation into online advertising in the UK was kicked off last year by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) to gauge the power of the giants and assess if customers understood what data was being collected and monetised.

The result, and a potential nightmare scenario for the likes of Google and Facebook in the UK, will be a new statutory code of conduct aimed at giving consumers more choice and control over what happens to their data as well as enabling small businesses to better promote themselves online.

"Online platforms bring huge benefits for businesses and society," said noted UK lawmakers before adding that the concentration of power among a small number of tech companies, such as Facebook and Google, could both reduce innovation and potentially have "negative impacts on the people and businesses that rely on them."

Cue a code of conduct backed up by UK law.

Sadly for consumers, but perhaps a ray of hope for the ad-flinging behemoths, things remain rather fuzzy and somewhat heavy on the word "could" at the moment. Platforms "could" be required to be more transparent about what they are doing with consumer data and offer up more choices. The DMU "could be given powers to suspend, block and reverse decisions of tech giants," as well as imposing fines for non-compliance.

If given enough teeth, the new unit might well prove to be a thorn in Google and Facebook's side and will be informed by the work of Digital Markets Taskforce (DMT), aimed at advising the government on how to design and implement measures to foster competition. Its report is expected later this year.

As for the DMU, it will start work in April but won't be able to do much without some power behind it. The government will decide on the DMU's form and function, and will legislate when parliamentary time allows.

'Something must be done'

Neil Brown, managing director at tech law firm decoded.legal told The Register: "Today's announcement is placeholder for what is to come, rather than anything substantive in itself. It signals intent, and there is a strong sense of 'something must be done', but the detail of the proposed measures is left for next year.

"The government says that it intends to legislate as soon as parliamentary time allows, but whether that will be after the consultations foreshadowed by today's announcement, or in parallel with them, remains to be seen.

"Curiously, since 'online harms' seems to be the stock phrase for anything anyone dislikes about the internet, that term is missing from today's announcement. However, since one of the proposals in respect of that area of policy includes giving Ofcom powers to dictate a platform's terms of service, it looks like there will be an overlap there too."

As for the tech giants themselves, Google pointed to the benefits of online platforms with UK & Ireland veep Ronan Harris saying: "Online tools have proved to be a lifeline during the pandemic and they can help create a digital, sustainable and inclusive recovery. We support an approach that benefits people, businesses and society and we look forward to working constructively with the Digital Markets Unit so that everyone can make the most of the internet."

We asked Facebook for its take on matters, but the anti-social media company has yet to respond. ®


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