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25 February 2021

Coscelli: Legal Powers ‘Critical’ For Digital Markets Unit

The legal powers underpinning the new Digital Markets Unit to level the playing field between the tech giants and the publishers are “critical” and Government has promised to introduce a draft Bill “in the coming months,” the chief executive of the Competition and Markets Authority has said.   

In an extended interview with Amol Rajan for The Media Show this week, Andrea Coscelli said he believed that the Australian approach to redressing the balance, which is being closely watched by Governments and regulators around the world, was "a sensible one."

Explaining how the DMU will function, Dr Coscelli said: "It's important to bear in mind that the legal powers are not there yet. So, what the Government has done is created a shadow function, this Digital Markets Unit, it has given us the funding from the first of April to get on with it.

"But what is critical is also the legal powers can only come from primary legislation so Government has promised to introduce a draft Bill in the coming months and that clearly is going to be a very important part of it.” 

In a debate in the House of Lords earlier this afternoon, the Minister Baroness Barran denied that the Government was “dragging its heels” in bringing forward legislation to deal with the issues.

Baroness Barran said the UK was working collaboratively with other jurisdictions across the globe and that Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden had met with his Australian and Canadian counterparts this morning.

The Minister also confirmed that the legislation underpinning the Digital Markets Unit would be separate to the Online Harms Bill.  

Lord Vaizey called for a forum for publishers and platforms to meet on a regular basis to try and coordinate schemes to give proper sustained financial support to local newspapers – an idea which the Minister said she would discuss with colleagues.  

The debate was held following a question from The Lord Bishop of Oxford asking the Government what assessment they have made of (1) the proposed legislation in Australia for a news media and digital platforms mandatory bargaining code, and (2) the case for similar such legislation in the United Kingdom.

Earlier this week, News Media Association chairman Henry Faure Walker said that the "whole sorry episode" of Facebook’s ban on news in Australia demonstrates why robust regulation is "urgently needed" to level the playing field between news publishers and the tech giants, and called on the UK Government to act quickly.  

Responding to news that Facebook has ended its ban on news in Australia, Mr Faure Walker said: “Importantly, the latest amendments to the Australian legislation should make it easier for regional and smaller publishers to obtain fair remuneration for use of their content by the tech platforms. We urge the UK Government to follow their lead as quickly as possible in order to help build a sustainable future for quality journalism in the UK.”  

On The Media Show, Dr Coscelli was asked if it would be good for consumers from a competition point of view for tech platforms to pay publishers much more. He responded: "It's not just a competition argument obviously there is much more about high quality journalism, democracy, I think some of the things we have all witnessed over the last 12 months globally have given us pause for thought. 

"A number of Governments and Parliaments in major democracies are struggling with this question which is that the business model for high quality independent journalism has been struggling for a number of years and this has worsened in recent years.

"And a number of people argued that the bargaining power of the platforms is extremely strong against the publishers and is creating a number of distortions.

"So I personally am in favour of mechanisms that try to think about what is the right balance."