The topic of regulatory independence is one of the most important in all industries, and was mercilessly exposed in the financial sector after the ‘great recession’ of 2008. But it is also crucial in the telecoms and media sectors given the potential for adverse intervention in a wide spectrum of issues, such as censorship, lack of affordable internet access, privacy and lack of culturally important content. While there are heated debates about what regulators should have in their remits, such as over the top (OTT) services, the underlying issues of why and how regulators should be independent in delivering these remits now appear to be rising up the agenda.
The OECD, which has long covered the governance of regulators, and economic regulators in particular, has recently published ‘Being an independent regulator’, in which it says: “Independence is not a given. Rather, it needs to be translated into practice throughout the work and life of a regulatory agency.” The report builds on a literature review that aims to “pinpoint why independence matters”, and also relies on feedback from a survey of 48 regulators in 26 countries, including, in the TMT sector, Germany’s BNetzA, France’s Arcep and Mexico’s Federal Institute of Telecoms. They are also members of the OECD’s Network of Economic Regulators, which the FCC and Ofcom are yet to join.
Aiming to inject some humour, the authors note that the film, Men in Black, portrays regulators as anonymous and ‘above the system’ in the pursuit of aliens, but in the real world are key players in the policy arena. The report gets down to basics, defining what a regulator is, and the benefits that independence can deliver, such as long-term stability, resisting pressure to raise or lower prices at the expense of service quality, signalling to industry that rules will be followed without government interference, and the promotion of a set of competencies and skills not found elsewhere.
The OECD jokes that regulators are not like the anonymous vanquishers of aliens as portrayed in Men in Black. But what does independence mean in reality?
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