In December, 2011, Vice President of the European Commission Neelie Kroes identified five areas where she wanted to see internet companies taking action to make the internet a better place for kids. In the name of self-regulation Kroes asked the industry to promote
- Simple and robust reporting tools: easy-to-find and recognisable features on all devices to enable effective reporting and responses to content and contacts that seem harmful to kids;
- Age-appropriate privacy settings: settings which take account of the needs of different age groups (such settings which can determine how widely available a user’s information is; for example whether contact details or photos are available only to close contacts rather than to the general public);
- Wider use of content classification: to develop a generally valid approach to age-rating, which could be used across sectors and provide parents with understandable age categories;
- Wider availability and use of parental control: user-friendly tools actively promoted to achieve the widest possible take-up;
- Effective takedown of child abuse material: to improve cooperation with law enforcement and hotlines, to take proactive steps to remove child sexual abuse material from the internet.
Not the best possible start
Nobody I know acknowledges having been consulted about the choice of items that Kroes decided to highlight, moreover their sudden emergence suggested a certain froideur which sat ill with what was supposedly the birth of a new era of co-operation. Coming not that long after what industry saw as a “dangerously radical”, vaguely menacing speech by the then new DG, Robert Madelin, suspicions were aroused. Mistrust stalked the corridors. Not the best possible start.
More grumbles, a big breakthrough and some good work gets done
There were also grumbles about some of the companies Commission officials chose to invite to meetings, and those they didn’t, but the really good news was major mobile phone handset, tablet and games console manufacturers agreed to climb on board. Previous attempts to get them to engage had failed while all manner of new internet enabled portable and other devices were rapidly moving centre stage. Definitely one up to Neelie.
31 companies enrolled as members of what soon became known as the CEO Coalition. See the table below for the full list.
Over the following two and a bit years multistakeholder working groups and sub-groups were formed both to document what the 31 businesses were already doing on the five points and to set out the new things they were proposing to do to respond to the challenge.
For a number of the smaller, newer companies these different groups and their outputs were perhaps the most valuable aspect of the CEO Coalition. What they learned in the course of the discussions helped nudge them towards better policies and practices. It’s a shame this dimension has not been given greater acknowledgement.
Maybe even some of the larger, longer-established businesses also changed a few things as the odd loophole, inconsistency or poor design was uncovered during the process. On both counts the Commission deserves another big thumbs up.
With no fanfare or flashing lights
On 9th February, 2014, in time for Safer Internet Day, the companies’ final reports to the CEO Coalition were published on a Commission site. I say “final” somewhat tentatively because there is a degree of imprecision about where exactly the CEO Coalition now stands. Either way these reports and the web page they are on most decidedly are not the least bit user-friendly or journalist-friendly. It looks to me as if zero thought and probably zero money were invested in presenting and promoting what should have been a high point if not also the end point of a lengthy and at times an extremely intense affair. Thus did the CEO Coalition fizzle out. RIP.
As the table shows, of the 31 companies that signed up to the CEO Coalition 26 completed the course, at least in the sense that they submitted the required reports. That’s a pretty good hit rate. Five companies appear to have fallen by the wayside. They are not shown on the Commission’s web site. 26 out of 31 means, in my book, the Commission again gets lots of Brownie points.
Aside from submitting reports what actually happened?
What do these reports represent? The simple truth is there are no mechanisms in place to evaluate them. Yes, anyone can download the documents and look but who will have the necessary time, stamina, expertise and understanding of the context?
Right now we therefore cannot know if the reports rendered under the CEO Coalition give a true and fair representation of what the company in question is doing to make the internet a better place for kids much less what they changed to make it so following the Commissioner’s clarion call. This also means, at one level, we cannot generalise or draw conclusions about how well the approach embodied by the CEO Coalition has worked. But wait. What’s that I see?
Winding back a bit – the ICT Principles Coalition hoves into view
Six months or so before the announcement by Commissioner Kroes key players in the internet industry had already decided to come together to push forward the online child safety agenda. Was this a defensive measure or a positive gambit? Search me. Could be both. Anyway the companies concerned formed the ICT Principles Coalition.
Since the Principles Coalition was initiated and was going to be financed wholly by industry it had all the hallmarks of a genuine attempt at self-regulation. Referring back to my earlier point about the suspicions that were around, many industry people therefore wondered why exactly the Commission felt it needed to jump in just at the point when companies appeared to be getting their act together? The whiff of politics hung heavy in the air. Rumours were rife about who was politicking with whom. This is not altogether surprising when you hang out around the Berlaymont building but that only underlines the need for care and transparency with certain kinds of processes.
The stated idea of the ICT Principles Coalition was to get hi-tech businesses to sign up to a framework of undertakings which would describe their strategic approach to children’s and young people’s use of their products. The Principles Coalition subsequently decided to incorporate Kroes’s five points into their statement of objectives, thus effectively merging the work streams of both Coalitions. The Principles guys then added a sixth one all of their own to address education and awareness.
The difference between the two Coalitions
The ICT Principles Coalition differed from the CEO Coalition in one vital respect: in contrast to the CEO guys it was clear from the outset that the reports provided under the Principles set up would be independently evaluated by an expert honest broker. The companies agreed to fund the evaluation. They appointed a highly respected academic from Ireland, Brian O’Neill, to select and lead a team to do it.
Thus, given the overlap between the two Coalitions, here is an interesting question: how many companies that made reports to Commissioner Kroes under the CEO Coalition will, in effect, have their performance independently monitored or evaluated by virtue of them also being part of the ICT Principles Coalition?
Participation in the Principles Coalition seems to have fluctuated. At the moment it is understood to have about 21 members. As you will see from the table they include eight companies that were never part of the CEO Coalition.
Of the 31 CEO Coalition companies only 13 decided to become members of the Principles group. That means only 13 CEO Coalition members are guaranteed to have their efforts looked at in detail.
I am not suggesting companies in the CEO Coalition that refused to join the Principles Coalition did so in order to avoid their work being given an independent examination. Definitely not. But if we look at the CEO Coalition as an exercise which carries with it the potential for the sort of public reassurance that such scrutiny implies, the net outcome of the CEO Coalition, all those meetings and all that angst, comes down to and involves only 13 businesses. Admittedly some of them are large and important, but that’s not quite or entirely the point.
The Coalitions’ membership and performance
|CEO Coalition||ICT & CEO||ICT Only|
|Telecom Italia||Telecom Italia|
The sites marked in red are the CEO Coalition members whose statements did not appear on the Commission’s web site on 9th February, 2014.
Principles Coalition helped the CEO Coalition
My own view is in a strange way even though the Principles Coalition predated the CEO Coalition the fact that the CEO Coalition was formed gave extra weight to the Principles’ processes. If the CEO Coalition had not been established with energetic backing from Robert Madelin and his staff who knows how the Principles Coalition would have turned out? That said, to end up with the work of only 13 of the CEO Coalition’s members being looked at in detail has to be a little disappointing. If the CEO Coalition put lead in the pencil of the ICT Principles Coalition it wasn’t very much lead.
Moreover the question of how all or any of the work done under the CEO Coalition will impact on or be taken up by a wider range of businesses has been left hanging in mid-air. I do not think the ICT Principles Coalition is strongly minded or equipped to go on an evangelical mission.
Thus I think the ICT Principles Coalition may have to tool up to get evangelical and, of course, it goes without saying that the evaluations currently being carried out by Brian O’Neill need to come out strongly positive. If either of those conditions is not met we may be back to square one with a question mark hanging over how we get the sort of internet our kids deserve.
Must be more to self-regulation than promises nobody checks
I mentioned earlier that the whole world is free to look at all of the reports published by the CEO Coalition, and I indicated a degree of scepticism about whether or to what extent this would happen in any sort of meaningful way.
When questioned, Commission officials appeared to assume, and on at least one occasion expressly said, they believed the ever-vigilant media, NGOs, academics (or competitors?) between them would keep everyone in the CEO Coalition process honest. Companies would worry that a false declaration or the absence of a declaration could expose them to reputational damage. That would be enough to guarantee participants’ integrity.
Any process or idea which depends upon the self-starting vigilance of the media is seriously flawed. It leaves too much to chance. Putting on one side the vagaries of the daily news agenda, news outlets around the world are increasingly hard-pressed. Too many journalists are under constant pressure to produce copy. In some spaces journalism has become little more than churnalism. There has always been a bit of this around but today it’s on steroids.
The temptation to go for the easy-to-report, easy-to-find stuff can be overwhelming, even on our most revered and esteemed national organs. This tendency is more pronounced where there is a geeky element to the narrative which may require a little extra effort to understand the basics. Alternatively the techie journalists who already are or easily could get clued up are either not interested in kids’ stuff, or their affiliations to one or other part of the internet industry makes it difficult for them. Then there’s the little matter of cross-media ownership and how that might influence the way different challenges are viewed.
As for relying on NGOs to act as scrutineers: many would love to. They try their best but too many are using their hard earned resources working directly with children or they are living hand-to-mouth, struggling to stay afloat or to find the next grant or contract to keep them going. Academics and other commentators equally can be severely constrained by entirely external factors.
Not any kind of regulation worthy of the name
Under-resourced units within the Commission and a motley array of NGOs, academics and others are having to contend with the PR Departments, Government Liaison Officers and research facilities of some of the richest and smartest companies on the planet. It is very far from being an equal struggle. To call this self-regulation is to trivialize and reduce the concept to nearly nothing. Self-regulation meets Amateur Night. Self-regulation in the advertising industry and in many other areas does not work like that.
It is completely unrealistic to expect the target or subject companies to put all this to rights by their own hand or volition although some of them are plainly capable of moving in the right direction. Among the major players there are just too many conflicting or competing interests to allow them to come together in that way.
Many of the internet based companies look in horror at the way the Telcos are tied up in knots by regulation and they are determined to avoid getting sucked into any sort of comparable situation, whether voluntarily or not, by stealth or not. They intend to exploit the advantages their relative freedom gives them. In other words at bottom almost every internet firm is, in truth, quite happy to keep things as loose as possible for as long as possible. Turkeys should never be expected to vote for Christmas is probably how they see it.
And so, the end is near…..and a new beginning beckons
I could be wrong. Maybe the Commission can stay out of it. Whether or not the Principles Coalition turns out to be a good model for self-regulation depends on what we make of the 13 reports currently being assessed by Brian O’Neill and his crew. If they come out the other side with a net positive, and they find a way to draw in many more online businesses, maybe that will point the way ahead. Self-regulation will triumph.
Later this year we will have a new Commission. Doubtless they will want to take a view on the way forward. This time around we will all be a little wiser, a little less innocent.
DG Connect has a lead responsibility for encouraging the growth of and investment in high tech industries in Europe, in order to help bolster our strategic position vis a vis China and the USA. This is enormously important to all of us. We want them to succeed. But is there something structurally wrong with asking the DG that must lead on that also to have the lead responsibility for trying to get the same businesses to change the way they work? I’m starting to think there might be.
I will do my best to read and comment on as many of the Principles reports as I can and I hope anyone reading this will do likewise. They are all here. I intend to focus on the 13 companies that were in both Coalitions.