Failures of contingency planning worsened by delay

UK Children’s organizations have written a letter of protest to the Government.

The media have covered in some detail certain headline failures of contingency planning in relation to Covid-19 and lockdown. Less well remarked has been the failure of contingency planning in respect of children and families in the context of online safety and in particular how, if the Government had acted more expeditiously, certain risks to children could have been, if not eliminated, then at least reduced. That is the essence of the letter.

While acknowledging hindsight is a marvellous gift, it nevertheless remains the case that if Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act 2017 had been implemented in the way and according to the timescale originally anticipated fewer children would have been exposed to explicit pornographic material during lockdown.

If the Age Appropriate Design Code had been moved along with greater speed a smaller number of children would have been trapped or exploited during lockdown.

And let’s not forget the “Big One”: the “duty of care” and associated requirement for online businesses to honour their own Terms and Conditions of Service rather than  use them simply as deceptive marketing.  Both those ideas were foreshadowed in the Queen’s Speech in June 2017. They formed the centrepiece of the Online Harms White Paper.

While the Government has to carry a large part of the can for these acts of omission, so too do the companies whose only strategy has been delay. Delay for them is the same as winning. The status quo is what made them rich and powerful. They can live with it for a great deal longer. The money keeps rolling in.

Despite frequent proclamations by some online businesses of an acceptance of the need for regulation, the key word is “some”.  And even those who say they do accept the need might have a very narrow or limited view of what it might mean.

Why do I mention this now? A couple of weeks ago I was on a call where it was reported as uncontested fact that bodies like Tech-UK and the CBI are urging the Government to give Big Tech a “breathing space”, meaning further regulatory intervention should be put on hold sine die. This appeared to get a sympathetic hearing from HMG.

As the children’s organizations make clear in their letter this is completely unacceptable. And can I make a plea? If any of the big name online businesses really want to argue for delay or for a different approach to regulation could they please do so openly in their own name and not hide behind the skirts of trade associations or Think Tanks? And double please, do not say you would be OK with this or that proposal for regulation but you worry about the effect it might have on start ups – the companies you typically buy, absorb or close down the minute they show any sign of succeeding.

There is a great deal of knowledge easily available to any start up about the risks children face in the online world and how to address them. Doing the right thing should not be something you opt for only when you can afford it. Doing the right thing is now part of the entry costs for the industry you appear to want to join.

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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