One more visit to the Last Chance Saloon

Today saw the launch of the long-awaited Green Paper (consultative document)  setting out the UK Government’s thinking on what a new internet safety strategy might look like. Containing almost 60 pages of densely written text, it pretty much covers the entire online child safety and child welfare horizon plus a couple of extra bits e.g. fraud and older people. In addition, while online dating sites and hate speech have not, historically, been part of the children’s internet agenda, the fact is they definitely are now so well done to all for including them.

I am not going to try to sum up everything in the Green Paper today but here are three  of what I think are key headlines:

  • The Digital Economy Act, 2017, requires a Code of Practice to be developed to guide or at any rate describe how social media platforms are expected to behave across a broad spectrum of issues. This we already knew. What the Green Paper makes clear is that this could become linked to sanctions regime to ensure compliance. Gulp!  I must have missed that but the key word there is “could”.   We shall see.  Sanctions, or the threat of them, certainly seem to be doing the trick in Germany.
  • A levy is to be established to fund awareness raising and preventative activity although here it is clear they would really like it to be voluntary. What is unclear is if the expectation is that, if such a levy were to be established, would it simply siphon off funds companies are already spending e.g. on initiatives such as  Internet Matters or would it go into a kitty that the Government would control\/
  • Without wishing to diminish the importance of either of the above, for me the truly encouraging bit of the Green Paper concerned what the Government are asking for in terms of transparency.

We simply do not know the truth about the real scale and nature of what is happening to children and young people on the different platforms and how well, or otherwise, the companies responsible are addressing them, within what timescales and so on. And just to make it clear, the we here is not just policy wonks, it is parents, teachers and children and young people themselves.

Given the absolutely central role the internet plays in all our lives it is no longer acceptable for companies to ask everybody to take everything on trust. With great power comes great responsibility and with great responsibility also comes a need for accountability.

There can be no real accountability without transparency.  The transparency dimension is also to be voluntary but on the  Today programme on Radio 4 this morning Karen Bradley MP, Secretary of State  with responsibility in this area, was quite clear (paraphrasing)

If this voluntary approach does not work we will legislate.

I guess I have a rather world-weary sense that that’s where we are going to end up so I am disappointed we didn’t take that final and inevitable step now. Instead, we are making one more visit to the Last Chance Saloon. Apologies for mixing metaphors but I am reminded of the boy who cried “wolf!”.

And was it a coincidence that just as the Green Paper emerges today we learn that Ofcom, or at any rate its CEO finally seems to accept both that the internet can be regulated and that the big internet platforms are in fact publishers?

The wind has been blowing in this direction for quite a while but when even conservative-old Ofcom starts tacking you sense that it looks like turning into a gale.

Closing date for comments on the Green Paper is 7th December.