A new internet safety strategy for the UK?

Earlier today the Government’s consultation on a new internet safety strategy for the UK finally came to a close.

Following the usual internal consultative processes, the children’s organizations in membership of the Children’s Charities’ Coalition on Internet Safety (CHIS), of which I am Secretary, had prepared and submitted their views. A copy of what we said, including the Appendix, can be downloaded here.

Documents of that kind are not the place to dwell on the many things that have worked well in Britain.  I have written about these before.

Thus, I am very proud of the UK’s many notable world firsts and to those listed in the earlier blog we can add, in 2013, the then Prime Minister donating £50 million to kick off what is now called the We Protect Global Alliance. Earlier this year, we tightened up the law on grooming and the Digital Economy Act, 2017 completed its passage through Parliament, paving the way for age verification to keep children out of pornography sites.

However, in terms of many of the things which, domestically, continue to concern children and parents day to day,  it is plain the UK has relied far too heavily on self-regulation and voluntarism and  this has brought us to a point where parents are more worried about harms that might happen to their children via technology than they are, for example, about their potential premature engagement with alcohol and tobacco. Hard to credit.

We have had a plethora of codes and initiatives but without any real or systematic mechanisms having been put in place to monitor or measure the effect or impact of what they were meant to be achieving. This is linked to or is part of an even larger problem. As we say in the submission.

“….. no other industry of comparable size or importance operates with such a near total lack of transparency or accountability.”

At the moment much of public policy seems to be driven by crises which, in turn, are fuelled by media headlines. We need to move away from that to evolve a trusted, respected and more stable mechanism which is very broadly supported by civil society, industry and public alike, and in particular by parents and children.

For this reason, CHIS is calling for the creation of an expert, broadly-based time-limited body with the necessary, personnel, resources and legal powers to require businesses operating online in the UK to co-operate in providing answers to these questions:

  1. What are the optimal conditions for managing the internet in Britain so as to ensure the internet is as safe as it can be for children?
  2. What information and what mechanisms are needed to reassure parents, children, the public and policy-makers that everything that can reasonably be done to keep the internet safe for children is, in fact, being done?
  3. What minimum standards should be observed by different kinds of online businesses and how and by whom should they be overseen and enforced?

Based on their findings the expert body would make recommendations to Parliament on how we should approach internet governance in the future.

The way we manage the internet and matters connected to it in the UK, like the internet itself, have evolved in an ad hoc and typically reactive manner. It’s time to take a fresh look. Moreover, there are no serious international mechanisms for doing this so we have to start here and work outwards or else wait for fate to wash over us.

In the USA, in a briefing organized by the Congressional Internet Caucus on 8th September 2017, Professor Julie Cohen, Professor of Law & Technology, Georgetown University Law School, in a similar vein observed that the administrative arrangements which presently exist in America had not been “optimised for the information economy we are starting to have”.  Exactly right.