Life was simpler once. Governments in the liberal democracies were content to rely heavily on industry self-regulation as the principal means of addressing some of the problems that began to emerge with the arrival of the internet. Industry by and large loved such an approach. The fewer actual rules or restrictions, the larger the scope they had to innovate and experiment with new business models.
Right out of the traps many free speech and civil rights groups objected to this approach. They argued if Governments are putting direct or indirect pressure on industry to behave in a certain way in order to deliver on particular public policy objectives, they should do so openly, making their wishes or intentions known through established public policy mechanisms e.g. legislation and regulations. That way there would be transparency, there would be accountability and the playing field would be as level as it could be, at least in the sense that pretty much everyone would be bound. Compliance should not be à la carte.
My view always was, and remains, what matters is what works. I don’t have a dog in the at times theological fight over processes.
However, for all sorts of reasons it is now clear the areas within which internet self-regulation can continue to operate inside the EU are becoming vanishing small. The net neutrality rules, the AVMSD and, grandmother and grandfather of them all, the GDPR, are closing down or narrowing the spaces (maybe not always entirely satisfactorily). If the Unfair Commercial Practices Directive is ever to be materially enhanced and national data protection authorities or some other body takes it upon themselves to ensure that big internet platforms are delivering on their implied or stated (but unverified) promises about how they treat children we will more or less have covered all the key bits of the turf.
Yet even where hard law exists everyone recognises there are issues of interpretation and about establishing best practice which can benefit from open dialogue between a range of interested parties. Then there is the problem of perpetual change. Every regulatory environment – self or otherwise – is bound to lag behind real world developments. If they do nothing else, intelligently thought-through voluntary measures can hold the fort until the longer term picture becomes clearer.
This was the backdrop to an important meeting last week in Brussels which is looking forward to the launch, on 7th February next year, of the Alliance to better protect minors online. The Alliance will build on the work of the previous Administration’s CEO Coalition. It was accepted there needs to be mechanisms for monitoring what is achieved under its aegis.
One area where there was broad agreement was in respect of the need for continued self-regulatory activity is in the field of education and awareness. Combatting bullying receievd special mention as did promoting good netizenship. True enough even here we already see the state or its proxies assuming more and more responsibility but there is little doubt that both Governments and public alike can reasonably expect the industry to pitch in, helping to ensure children and young people themselves, their parents and teachers as well as other members of the children’s workforce are up to speed. The good news is large parts of the industry fully accept their continuing role and responsibility in these areas. The challenge is to reach out to more industry players to get them to sign up.
Watch this space.