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Former Google executive appointed to lead new UK Digital Regulators Forum

Executive of the Digital Regulation Cooperation Forum (DRCF).

The government has appointed a former Google executive to run a new UK digital regulator – a move that sparked disbelief in many quarters on Monday. Gill Whitehead – who spent four years at Google, sitting on its UK Management Group – will be Chief Executive of the Digital Regulation Cooperation Forum (DRCF).

Among the new forum’s responsibilities is joining up competition law and data protection.

Google has faced recent investigations by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) — a DRCF member — into suspected breaches of competition law and is also facing a formal antitrust investigation by the European Commission into its advertising technology. It is also currently fighting a €4.34 billion fine for breaching EU antitrust rules, with the European Commission finding that it placed illegal restrictions on Android device manufacturers and mobile network operators to cement its dominant position in general internet search. It is also fighting a €2.42 billion penalty for favoring its own shopping comparison service over rivals.

What’s the Digital Regulation Cooperation Forum?

The DRCF was launched in 2020 to help align competition law, content moderation and data protection.

The new “voluntary forum” marries regulators the CMA, data protection watchdog the ICO and communications regulator Ofcom – with financial services regulator FCA joining as a full member in April 2021. Pending activity in the space that the DRCF will work on includes plans for a Digital Markets Unit at the CMA to “oversee a new pro-competition regime”; and a new duty of care for online safety to be overseen by Ofcom.

Ofcom said on Monday: “Gill will lead the collective expertise of its members to ensure the digital landscape is regulated effectively, efficiently and coherently, and will oversee the delivery of the forum’s established action plan. She will be in charge of the Secretariat formed by each of the regulators and work closely with their CEOs to develop joined-up approaches, and to ensure that regulatory policy is developed in a responsive and holistic way.”

The appointment was welcomed by Andrea Coscelli, Chief Executive of the CMA, who said: “Gill’s impressive experience in this sector makes her ideally suited to take on this challenging and important role. We look forward to working closely with Gill and the other DRCF members on a more joined up approach to digital regulation – ensuring that we are delivering for consumers and businesses across the whole of the UK.”

Associate Professor in Digital Rights & Regulation at UCL, Dr Michael Veale meanwhile noted on Twitter: “The person appointed to run the group of UK regulators covering digital issues… has quite literally been working for Google for the last 5 years. Astounding. Regardless of this person’s personal capacity for understanding the issues behind this role, there can surely only be jubilation over at Google Public Policy at this appointment.”

FCA Chief Executive Nikhil Rathi said: “My colleagues and I very much look forward to working with Gill and the wealth of experience she brings, as we focus on delivering better outcomes for consumers. This appointment marks an important milestone for us, as we all work together on an ambitious workplan to ensure online safety, backed by effective legislation and regulation. The DRCF provides a step-change in how we engage and coordinate in our regulation of the digital landscape.”

Ofcom meanwhile is still recruiting for a chair of the board after the government’s efforts to appoint former Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre were thwarted. A fresh advert landed Monday, with some light changes

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