Calling time in the last chance saloon


No one in the UK who is concerned with online child protection can today complain that the subject has been neglected by the media, senior politicians or top executives in the major tech companies.  There has never before been a period of such sustained high level interest of the kind we have witnessed over the past few weeks.

It began with the verdicts in the Stuart Hazell and Mark Bridger child murder trials, continued through the industry summit called by Secretary of State Maria Miller MP and reached its peak over this weekend and yesterday when our Prime Minister, David Cameron, set out the Government’s overarching strategy. And it goes on. Tomorrow there is to be an important meeting at the Home Office, chaired by Damian Green MP.

On Monday I was in the room when Mr Cameron gave his heavily trailed speech. I am in no position to patronise the PM but I still have to say it was quite brilliant. The analysis was spot on. Well done to him and the people who helped put it together. We now have a fantastic blueprint or workplan for the coming period.

I know some of the internet companies feel they are being unfairly pilloried, even bullied, but in the grand scheme of things they just need to find a way to deal with the realpolitik. I appreciate that the PM made several very big asks, some of which are far from straightforward. But if any of this was easy it would already have been done.

Cameron went to great lengths to praise the industry for the extremely positive things they have already put in place however, when you boil it down to its essentials, really the main message was simple, loud and clear

We’ve made a lot of progress but not enough. There are still too many ways in which the technology can be abused which are completely unacceptable. I know that no single company is responsible for the internet as a whole but see if you can’t all find ways to make it better, use your smarts to solve these problems on a voluntary basis or we will come after you with legislation. I’m calling time in the last chance saloon. 

I’m guessing many companies will be anxious not to put Mr Cameron to the test. If the UK were to legislate to compel online enterprises to act in the ways our Prime Minister thinks they should probably a number of other countries would follow suit, though likely not in an absolutely identical way. Quickly entrepreneurs would be facing a nightmare scenario: a multiplicity of regulatory requirements, all of them slightly different. Not only would that lead to administrative complexity and extra costs, potentially for everyone who wants to operate in the UK space, it is also not hard to imagine how several individual business models could be drastically affected. There is only one way for this to be avoided. Get busy.

I remember once going to see a major internet player in the USA. I was talking to them about a particular aspect of online child protection policy. I am paraphrasing but this is more or less what they said

At any one moment within our business there will be many competing demands for senior management attention, for investment funds and, crucially, for engineering time. The projects that get done first are those with the biggest amount of noise surrounding them. That noise is usually linked to anticipated revenues and profitability or it is about seeing off a perceived threat. We know we are going to have to do all this stuff eventually but, right now, no one’s giving us too much heat so it stays in the pending file, never quite making it to the action list.

Mr Cameron plainly intends to create the big noise that is going to change the rules of the game. Every single dot and comma of the measures outlined in his oration may not come to fruition, or at any rate not within the tight timescales outlined. I don’t suppose that will matter very much as long as the PM is convinced it is not for want of genuine effort and that, overall, palpable and important progress is made.

Which brings me to my main anxieties. These are all about the follow through, the delivery. Ofcom has been asked to lend a hand in managing the project going forward, which is good, but even so I think they will be stretched and tested with parts of it, which is not good.

It is in everyone’s long term and short term interests for this ship to complete its voyage and sail successfully into port.