Media Owners, Parliamentarians And Regulators Say DMU Legislation Must Be Prioritised

Media owners, Parliamentarians and regulators have united to stress the critical importance of bringing forward the vital legislation to level the playing field between platforms and publishers early in the next Parliamentary session. 

The All-Party Parliamentary Group for Media hosted a panel discussion on competition reform within the digital market at its annual general meeting last week. Speakers including Dido Harding and Paul Oldfield, controller of policy at the BBC, warned that the UK risked being left behind if the government did not act quickly to put the Digital Markets Unit on a statutory footing.   

Speaking on the slow progress of the legislation concerning the DMU, Baroness Harding said: “The only way to bring any competition into these markets is a pro-competition ex anti-regulatory framework. I firmly believe we have to do that.

“The fact that the positive framework we’ve set out is still years away from having any meaningful impact on our media landscape, is cause for real concern. The longer we leave this, the less innovation we will have in media. The less plurality we will have. This is properly serious.

“The big tech companies have for a very long time been telling us, you can only act globally on this issue. We’ve learned that that isn’t true. You can reach a global consensus in part of the world acting first, which happened for GDPR and has been happening for online safety.

“If we want to continue to be the leaders in this space, we need the government to move faster and we can’t afford to wait. Every month we don’t introduce this legislation, the whole world moves to a framework that is sub optimal.”

Dr Andrea Coscelli, CMA chief executive, said: “The imbalance in market power is very, very significant. We need to have a setup which is fairer, where there is more of a level playing field. We should not allow the platforms to essentially decide what to do without any kind of constraint.

“On the existing legal powers, we have competition powers across the general economy, but we do not have the right legal powers at the moment.

“A handful of very large platforms will have special regulatory regime apply to them, as well as a code of conduct which will constrain some of their commercial behaviours. There will be an ability for a regulator to have pro-competition intervention, so as to create more competition over time.

“There are three levels: primary legislation giving legal authority to the regulator. The second is providing guidance on compliance and the third is the enforcement of it.

“On media, the commercial pressures on publishers today are very great, especially concerning ad tech and its supply chain. Legal powers are available in Australia and France through new legislation. We need enhanced powers to deal with further acquisitions by these large platforms.”

Matt Rogerson, director of public policy at the Guardian Media Group, said: “It is important to differentiate between the internet and the platforms. The internet has been revolutionary in enabling us to grow from a Manchester newspaper in 1821 to having readers all over the world.

“Through the internet, we can serve relevant online advertising and low friction payments from readers in any country. It’s already seen us reach one million digital subscribers which we hope to grow further.

“We know consumers don’t just read the news from the Guardian – they read news on Facebook or from Google or Apple News. We want to connect with the widest possible audience and be where consumers are  – which coincides with the policy that we maintain an open, plural news ecosystem and having as many news brands as possible out there for us to read.

“The challenge over time when dealing with the platforms, is that we’ve seen their policies evolve over time, making it harder for publishers and developers to know who their business and retail customers are. We’ve seen steps by the platforms to prioritise their own consumer products and business services over potential rivals.

“In the words of the Australian competition regulator, they’ve become an unavoidable trading partner both for consumers and businesses. As a result they can set the rules of the game, often without negotiation and invariably in ways which benefit them and their financial interests.

“For years we’ve had grants from online platforms with lots of strings attached and prescriptive elements on how you use that money. In Australia, money was given to publishers as licensing revenue, which allowed them to innovate in ways that they chose. They could build products and services that their audience wanted.”

Paul Oldfield, controller of policy at the BBC, said: “The regulatory framework must keep pace with technological change. A framework that is flexible to keep up, but also has the teeth to allow the regulator to act.

“The UK is on the right track. To echo Dido’s point, we now really want them to get on with it. We’ve got to get going – we have the right framework, now’s the moment to press ahead and make that difference. If we don’t, the harm of these behaviours and strength of the platforms will be entrenched further.”

The News Media Association has repeatedly urged Government to bring forward the vital legislation to put the Digital Markets Unit on statutory footing early in the next Parliamentary session.

Speaking recently in a Publishing Show panel, NMA chief executive Owen Meredith said: “This should be a landmark moment, and it is vital that Ministers use this opportunity to pave the way for legislation early in the next Parliamentary session, with a Digital Competition Bill.”

At the APPG AGM last week, Dr Christina Caffara, senior consultant on European competition at Charles River Associates said: “The UK has been one of the first movers, going back to 2019 where discussions began. The European project is ending, which was put together in record time, starting in May 2020.

“However it is not clear who will enforce the Digital Markets Act, whereas in the UK it will be the CMA. Frankly the platforms themselves are not particularly scared.” When asked on how to tackle the issues of competition reform, Dr Caffara said: “Regulation has got to be the answer.”