Three choices

As regular readers will know, in the UK, Government policies typically, or at any rate often,  emerge  in the following way: arising from events or a manifesto commitment a “Green Paper” is issued as a consultative document. It sets out the Government’s thinking on a particular issue and asks questions about the best way to proceed.

At the end of the consultation, having looked at the evidence presented and listened to the views expressed, the Government responds with a “White Paper” which lets us know what conclusions they have reached. If one of the conclusions is legislation is necessary a draft Bill will appear in Parliament and off we go.

In what we used to call “normal times” the governing Party, or latterly a coalition, would have an overall majority and they would get their business through although there is always scope during the passage of a Bill for sometimes quite important details to be amended or tweaked. It depends how heavily committed the  Government is to the aspect of policy in question but whoever is in power a good argument will usually get a hearing even if it doesn’t always get a result.

It should have been yesterday

My “normally reliable sources” were all adamant. The long-awaited White Paper  on online harms, governance, transparency et al, was going to be published yesterday. Everyone was expecting it to be trailed in the press on Sunday. That didn’t happen. Can’t think why. Not.

Only the announcement of a General Election (unlikely but not impossible) could bring everything to a halt but even if  that were to happen it would not change the underlying reality. It would only postpone things. Why? Because there is a very broad consensus within the political class, heavily supported by major media outlets which, in turn, are buoyed up by public opinion. The status quo has to end.

Internet regulation is definitely going to happen in the UK, probably underpinned by a newly formulated “duty of care” which will somehow finesse the rules about intermediary liability and be enforced either by a wholly new regulator, or by some rearrangement of the powers of existing bodies, or some permutation thereof. Companies may well be required to show that their Terms and Conditions of service are not simply a pious hope or piece of marketing hype. If serious efforts are not being made to enforce them the business could be penalised.

I gather when the White Paper does appear it will have lots of “green edges”. In other words the Government hasn’t fully made its mind up on a number of things. There will therefore definitely be a lot to play for in several areas but it is crystal clear what topic is going to dominate the debate and the headlines.

Whither social media?

When the Bill makes its way into Parliament the political forces will line up under three broad headings.

There  will be those who want to be seen to be Extremely Tough on social media companies.  There will be those who want to be seen to be Very Tough and then there will be those who risk being denounced as Silicon Valley stooges because they are content to be seen merely as being Tough. It won’t take much to drive this last group into one of the other categories.

How has it come to this? The answer is so obvious  I can’t bring myself to write the words.

Under these conditions there is a great deal of scope for things to go wrong. As the Bill progresses, which brave soul is going to be willing to enter the lists to  make proposals or suggest alternatives that appear not to be so harsh or demanding on tech companies even if they are likely to be more effective? Most of the children’s groups will be willing to do so in respect of child protection issues but I doubt that that will be a major battleground.

Who ever imagined this is where we would end up?

About John Carr

John Carr is one of the world's leading authorities on children's and young people's use of digital technologies. He is Senior Technical Adviser to Bangkok-based global NGO ECPAT International and is Secretary of the UK's Children's Charities' Coalition on Internet Safety. John is now or has formerly been an Adviser to the Council of Europe, the UN (ITU), the EU and UNICEF. John has advised many of the world's largest technology companies on online child safety. John's skill as a writer has also been widely recognised.
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