Watson and Wright clash on big tech

Written by Julian Blake, Editor at DigitalAgenda

New culture secretary Jeremy Wright was given a rough ride in parliament last week by his opposite number Tom Watson, as the Labour deputy leader and digital spokesman attacked government ‘weakness’ on big tech regulation – and promised that Labour in government would act.

tomwatsonpicWatson (who teased Wright following his July appointment for not having a Twitter account) laid in to new secretary of state Jeremy Wright during commons questions on Thursday over the government’s perceived failure to regulate big tech business.

Watson (pictured) asked Wright believed the “duopoly” of Facebook and Google was “healthy for journalism and local democracy in the UK”.

“300 newspapers have closed in the last decade and there are 6,000 fewer local journalists since 2007 – hardly surprisingly when two companies, Facebook and Google, control nearly 60% of global online advertising revenues,” he said.

“It’s now all too clear that the big tech giants are running rings around governments, legislators and regulators, and our government is unable, or unwilling, to deal with their market dominance.”

Wright agreed that the problem was “one of the most serious that we face, certainly within this department and arguably beyond”, adding that “he will understand that what I want to do is understand this issue properly before I start to set out any decisions at all.”

Watson pledged during the exchange that if elected to government, Labour would introduce a new, single powerful regulator for social media. “It’s time we redressed the huge imbalance of power that the big tech giants hold over us,” he said.

During the exchange, Watson also called for a probe into whether Russia “stole” the EU referendum result, by illegally obtaining data through its proxies for social media campaigning. Referring to the FBI investigation into the Trump election, Watson said he wanted a “Mueller-style investigation” into the referendum campaign here.

Blogging later, Watson said it was clear “Facebook broke the law and allowed illegal data breaches during the EU referendum. Youtube has earned £160 billion off the back of other people’s creativity and content. Local newspapers are going to the wall because tech platforms like Google have swallowed up online advertising revenues.

In her parliamentary reply, digital minister Margot James said: “There’s no doubt that the law as it stands has been updated; the Information Commissioner’s Office has much increased powers and will be encouraged to use them.

“There’s no doubt these serious matters concerning the European referendum will be investigated but it’s really not a matter for my department.”

Watch Tom Watson’s exchange with Jeremy Wright (from about 34mins).

In a further development this week, Watson this week offered his personal backing for a private members bill by fellow Labour MP Lucy Powell, seeking to “stamp out online echo chambers of hate” by banning closed forums on Facebook that allow hate groups to spread unchallenged.

Powell’s bill has cross-party backing including from Nicky Morgan, Anna Soubry, David Lammy, Jacob Rees-Mogg – but is unlikely to reach the statute books without full government support. Facebook rejects the need for regulation of its platform.

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