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Ed Vaizey: UK social media regulator should be allowed to make mistakes and learn

UK's longest-serving culture minister explains why he would return to government under Boris Johnson and how a new watchdog could regulate social media.

Ed Vaizey
Ed Vaizey

Ed Vaizey has not voted for either Boris Johnson or Jeremy Hunt to be Conservative leader and prime minister.

"It’s so hard to choose between two such talented people," the former culture, media and sport minister tells Campaign with a deadpan look. 

Vaizey is speaking to Campaign at Google’s London headquarters, where he has just given a talk on "the view from Westminster" at the Jicwebs town hall. Much of the focus has been the government’s proposed online harms legislation, which includes setting up a statutory regulator for social media.

Vaizey has been a backbencher since being sacked by Theresa May in 2016; that ended a 10-year career in frontline politics in which he became Britain’s longest-serving culture minister. 

Yet a senior role within the cabinet, as secretary of state for culture, media and sport, eluded Vaizey during his six-year stint in a David Cameron government. It is clearly a source of regret for this affable Conservative who "wanted the ministerial job that covered the arts and museums… a job no other Tory wanted", rather than using the position as a stepping stone to bigger jobs.

Vaizey is no fan of Boris Johnson (he backed Johnson’s pro-Brexit rival Michael Gove), but admits in the (unlikely) event that "Boris" asked him to serve as culture secretary, he couldn’t turn down the opportunity, such is his yearning for the role. 

"I would probably say yes because… it’s one of the depressing facts of my life that this is the job I have always wanted to do in politics," he continues. "I read the other day that it’s the job that’s had the most cabinet ministers since 2010. I think there have been seven secretaries of state for culture and none of them have been me."

And yet Vaizey is fulsome in praise for the current holder of the role, Jeremy Wright, whose appointment last year drew derision from across the political spectrum due to his perceived lack of interest in matters digital, cultural, media or sport. 

"People wrote off [Wright] before he started," Vaizey says. "He’s really impressed me at DCMS, partly because he’s a lawyer and he’s taken a forensic approach.

"He’s not the all-singing, all-dancing, luvvie-loving secretary of state, but on something like the Online Harms White Paper, where you’ve seen me talk a load of contradictory gobbledygook, he’s had a pretty tough, forensic, legal approach for what would potentially work in the courts. My feedback from the department is that he has impressed them a lot."

This white paper, a draft outline for a UK law, suggests setting up a social media regulator (possibly Ofcom, possibly a brand new one) – an ambitious and complicated endeavour by a national government.

Vaizey agrees with the DCMS’s direction of travel and reckons his old boss Cameron would have had the same approach were he still prime minister today. He singles out Matt Hancock (Wright’s predecessor) for defining the digital agenda within the department: "He’s a sort of Cameron-style minister: pro-tech and very focused on tech."

While the content of the white paper did not surprise Vaizey, the fact that the government "actually got round to doing something" on regulating social media did incur a raised eyebrow – especially given that Brexit has dominated the political agenda. 

"I’ve always believed that technology regulation to a certain extent has to happen," he says. "How it happens and whether it can work are two separate questions.

"Something has to be put in place that gives the government some kind of leverage over the tech companies."

Vaizey is also dismissive of the idea that regulation would stifle innovation in social media.

"It’s pretty hard to argue that when the main players effectively represent the four most valuable companies in the world, where their customer base is in the billions, that these are small, disruptive, nimble flexible companies," he explains.

"They pervade every aspect of our lives and they, therefore, should be held to account. It seems to me absurd that a broadcaster can put out something that’s outrageous and get fined by the regulator or even threatened with being taken off air, but the business model of some of these platforms means that somehow they shouldn’t be touched by common-sense regulation." 

The two biggest dangers for tech regulation, Vaizey argues, are that restrictions become too prohibitive for start-ups to take on establishment tech and that restrictions on online hate speech could inadvertently result in statutory regulation of the press: "We're at a very difficult point where the press is online and the press are broadcasters. That is going to be a very hard issue to deal with."

The limits of freedom of speech and a desire to tackling online hate speech have come into full view again this weekend, after US president Donald Trump's racist tirade against four ethnic-minority congresswomen of colour in which he told them to "go back" to their "broken and crime-infested" countries.

But Vaizey suspects the tech giants are quietly welcoming regulation, compared with the unfortunate status quo of appearing to be dragged from a fundamentalist free-speech stance into policing hate speech and online abuse.

"I think it's helpful for them to have an independent regulator to potentially take those decisions for them and give them legitmacy," he continues. "An independent regulator would help produce an element of consistency in terms of what consumers could expect from social media."

There is also a dilemma for the government over whether to hand these regulatory duties to Ofcom, an experienced watchdog with enforcement powers and expertise, or a new body that could have a more specialist focus. There is also a question over whether Ofcom's chief executive would have too much on their plate, given that the body already oversees broadcast TV (including the BBC) as well as postal communications.

"I started thinking Ofcom is the obvious place, where a lot of the expertise resides… but I'm more open now to the idea of a new regulator and allowing it to establish itself and make its mistakes."

Vaizey thinks there could be a role for the Information Commissioner's Office to play (he praises Elizabeth Denham as "a really impressive figure") if a new regulator were to be merged with another body.

Meanwhile, the refrain of "making mistakes" is a recurrent one in our interview. Vaizey remarks: "Clearly, everyone is learning on the job. The explosion of the internet has been monumental… there's nothing wrong with people getting stuff wrong or feeling their way, including government and business. Anyone who think they've got the whole answer is mistaken."

This is why, if Vaizey did become the minister in charge of tech again, he would strive for the tech giants and government to find a middle ground: "That was always the challenge, as a minister, to get the tech industry and government trying to work together to work in the same direction."

Given that the UK's likely new prime minister has talked about leaving the EU by 31 October "come what may", it would be hard to see how this moderate consensus-building politician could make a return.

And if he did, what if Johnson were to take the drastic step of suspending parliament to force through a no deal exit by the end of October?

"I'd probably have to resign, but at least I'd have done the job," Vaizey sighs.