Much ado about……what exactly?


In a blog I wrote in March, 2011, I quoted Robert Madelin, the then newly appointed Director-General of DG Connect. Speaking about the role of self-regulation as a mechanism for making the internet a better place for children Madelin said

“Self-regulation is coming under enormous scrutiny. Proof it can work needs to be brought to ripeness quickly.”

We were told

“This is a crucial year for the legitimacy of the self-regulatory model.”

There was a hint that Madelin thought the people in the Commission who had, in his eyes, hitherto passively acquiesced in self-regulation in the online child protection space only did so because they were

“not ambitious enough.”

Lightning bolts

These words were the Euro equivalent of lightning bolts. Prior to this moment self- regulation had more or less acquired the status of holy writ. Even those who had misgivings about it nonetheless accepted there was then no viable alternative on the horizon. Madelin’s words appeared to promise, or threaten, a great deal of change. If things did not buck up….well that was never really spelt out but the portents were that it would be mighty and it would be righteous.

Many of us started to ponder what the shift in emphasis might mean in practice. Sections of industry came together to see if they could come up with an appropriately strategic response to the gauntlet Madelin had so deliberately and provocatively thrown down. In the spirit of the multi-stakeholder approach that is currently in vogue industry players invited NGOs to be part of what they (eventually) christened the ICT Principles Coalition.

The Five Principles

Then, out of the blue, in December, 2011, Madelin’s political boss, Vice President Neelie Kroes, gave more specific shape to Madelin’s 35,000 feet overview. She wrote to the CEOs of 38 high tech companies asking them to deliver against five headings. 31 companies responded. This gave birth to the CEO Coalition, another multi-stakeholder body containing more or less the same companies and NGOs as were in the ICT Principles Coalition. Hey ho.

Quite what the thinking was behind the choice of some of Kroes’s five topics was never and still is not clear. If there was any prior strategizing the identities of those responsible ought to remain a closely-kept secret because they picked an agenda some parts of which were at least six years out of date. This did not inspire a great deal of confidence at the get go. I don’t suppose anyone thought Madelin or Kroes were wholly to blame. Responsible, sure, but they were too new in the job. They could not possibly have understood all of the nuances or subtleties of the devils they were conjuring up. The worry was more in terms of who they were listening to.

12 month deadline

Kroes gave the high tech companies collectively 12 months to come up  with proposals in relation to how they would meet her stated targets. Working groups were established to consult on and prepare papers setting out a range of desirable options under each of the five headings. Businesses were asked to describe how they as individual enterprises would respond to this flurry of activity. The year is up. Last week we all met in Brussels to reflect on what had been achieved. 

There is no doubt several of the working groups produced excellent documents containing some very worthwhile ideas. 25 out of 31 companies that had participated in the CEO Coalition process at different times also published draft statements setting out their specific responses. So far so good. But here’s where it starts to get a bit jagged.

We won’t see the final company statements until next week. They will be published to coincide with 5th February, Safer Internet Day. I doubt many of them will be markedly different from the drafts we were handed last week but until the deadline has passed we must respect the confidentiality attaching to them. Nonetheless I do think some more general remarks are appropriate. If anything changes radically between the drafts and the final versions trust me I will let you know.

The drafts

What struck me about the drafts was two things.

First, the differences between platforms and types of services covered by the companies involved meant the draft statements contained a quite bewildering array of highly diffuse and disparate information. While some attempt had been made to establish a common format, it didn’t work. I await with great interest to see which magician will be able to marshal all the data and present it to the public in a single place in a way that is intelligible and useful.

Secondly, there were marked differences in the quality or nature of the responses. Some edged towards saying

This is what we are doing, like it or lump it as we’re unlikely to do anything else

By contrast other companies peppered their papers with promises about several new things they will do during 2013. There was one paper in particular which was exceptionally detailed and specific in that regard. Against that there was rather a lot of high flown and hopelessly vague statements like

We will continue to attach a high priority to consulting widely on how to make the internet a better place

Who is going to draw all these things together and make sure the currently unfinished becomes finished? Who will check that those will statements become realities, who will ensure the world finds out and how?

The email inbox steps up

The only concrete suggestion going forward was that, persons unspecified within the Commission, would somehow consolidate and publish everything that was in the individual companies’ papers and a new email address would be created into which companies that acknowledged they still had things to do would report every time they did it.  All this will then appear on a Commission sponsored web site. 

The idea behind this was that companies would be terrified of a possible entry on a web site which showed they had not done something they had promised to do, or even that they were not doing something everybody else was doing.

That’s it? All those fine words about a lack of ambition and self-regulation being put under the microscope and tested comes down to the creation of an email inbox? That is probably righteous but it definitely is not mighty. To stick with the Shakespearean idiom of the title, while definitely not told by an idiot, right now, it still comes down to a great deal of

Sound and fury signifying very little indeed

Here comes summer

I cannot believe that all the bluster, pomp and angst of the past year has finally come to this. There must be more somewhere upstream, as yet undisclosed. In June there will be a (truly) “final” meeting of the CEO Coalition, seemingly restricted to CEOs.  I guess we all need to suspend our judgement until that meeting is over but there are at least three possible outcomes.

Scenario 1 – optimism?

Between now and then several CEOs will come to believe that Kroes and Madelin are serious. By June the ugly and awkward duckling I am looking at now will have transformed itself into an elegant, beautiful and energetic swan. Company web sites will be pulsating with news of extra safety initiatives being taken.

Scenario 2 – realism?

Too many CEOs believe this whole initiative has been more about today’s headlines and photo opps than tomorrow’s substance. They have drawn their own conclusions and have not acted accordingly.The duckling stays ugly and slowly fades from sight and memory.

If the latter turns out to be the case we will, in fact, have gone backwards because, short of wholly unforeseeable circumstances, the appetite for revisiting these issues any time soon will be zero.

Scenario 3 – another possibility

This is really a variant of or follow on from scenario 2. In late June, 2013, shortly after the meeting with CEOs, Kroes realises the outcome of her valiant effort has fallen a long way short of her expectations. Kroes announces she is deeply disappointed with the results of her attempt to make the internet a better place for children through voluntary measures. Kroes proposes to regulate.

Is that the cavalry?

Meanwhile, back with the ICT Principles Coalition, help potentially is at hand. By accident rather than design we could end up with scenario 1, kill off scenario 2 thus obviating the need for regulation under scenario 3.

The companies involved in the ICT Principles Coalition are proceeding with their plans to establish an independent mechanism for reviewing progress on implementing a range of measures. I believe they include all or at any rate most of the points covered by the Kroes principles. If this can be accomplished before June it should forestall the threat of regulation but it will need to be seen to be done, dusted and widely supported.

A great relief

At the end of last week’s meeting I think everyone just felt relieved that the consultative and policy formulation processes were over. Goodwill and hoping for a smile from Neelie will only take you so far and we had taken it absolutely as far as it could be taken.

Many will earnestly hope never to see a process like that again. The internet space is just too complicated for everyone to be lumped in together in the way that they were. Common goals certainly. Shared meetings, not necessarily or if we must then let it be quite rarely.

Must do better

Major gaps in the evidence base still need to be filled by someone who does not have an economic interest in the answers.  We need more expert resources on the civil society side to be in play to help carry the initiative along. Right now I have no idea where they will come from or who will assemble them.