My last blog was fairly upbeat about the UK Government’s interim response to the consultation on Online Harms. True the response was light on concrete proposals but much of the language was excellent. The overall tone was tough and purposeful.
Did I speak too soon or too naively? I say that because the day after the response appeared, in The Times, this article popped up under the headline “Boris Johnson set to water down curbs on tech giants”.
It had all the hallmarks of an insider briefing, opening with the following
“The prime minister is preparing to soften plans for sanctions on social media companies amid concerns about a backlash from tech giants.”
“There is a very pro-tech lobby in No 10,” a well-placed source said. “They got spooked by some of the coverage around online harms and raised concerns about the reaction of the technology companies. There is a real nervousness about it.”
Lest we forget, every Government in the world is to some degree conflicted. They want the jobs, prosperity and glitz that inward investment by hi-tech companies brings.
Against that is the day-to-day reality. Members of Parliament in the UK and their equivalents in many other countries are constantly being visited by, or receiving emails and letters from, concerned parents, teachers and others about something horrible that has happened to one of their children or some other vulnerable individual. Children themselves have not been silent and their views broadly mirror everyone else’s.
So is the scene set for a titanic struggle? We should assume it is and prepare accordingly because, as I have remarked before, the goodies don’t always win and the baddies don’t always lose.
The Government is going to be in an awkward position. They will not want to be seen as apologists for Silicon Valley. They will not want to say, in effect
“Chill. We are all going to have to learn to live with these dangers to children or threats to us all from terrorists and scam artists. It is the price we have to pay in perpetuity for the benefits the internet brings. And yes we’re sorry the guys who own the companies that allow these things to happen have become obscenely rich off the back of your woes but even so we musn’t be too harsh on them.”
Yet, post-Brexit, with a Free Trade Agreement with the USA very much in their sights, the pressure on the UK Government to dial it down could become immense. If any real signs of that happening emerge we need to urge Parliament to “take back control” and “get Online Harms done.”
Slogans such as those at least have the advantage of being familiar.