The EU’s Digital Services Act

On 8th September an EU consultation closes. It concerns a proposed new Digital Services Act (DSA). The Act will provide a once-in-a-generation opportunity to change the internet’s ground rules. Children’s advocates need to get busy.

Reforming the e-Commerce Directive

In the past twenty years or so the internet has changed almost beyond recognition. When the EU adopted the e-Commerce Directive in 2000 in many EU Member States children were a very small proportion of internet and mobile or smartphone users. Social media sites and services barely existed. Apps as we now know them were some way off. Tablets  you got from the doctor.

In 2000 the technology was still relatively new and poorly understood outside a narrow circle. Business asked Governments to “stay out of the way and let us innovate”. They got their wish. If problems arose, tech companies assured everyone they would “do the right thing”. This was called “self-regulation”.

It hasn’t worked. Or rather, its successes have been far too limited and inconsistent. By giving online businesses an almost unique form of legal protection, the e-Commerce Directive created a perverse incentive to do nothing. Many did exactly that. Nothing, or not enough.  Every tech company says they take children’s rights, including children’s safety, “very seriously”. Yet look where we are.

Today in the EU 90 million internet users are children. That is one in five of all users. Families and children are a major and persistent presence in the world of digital technology.  Whatever else it might be, in 21st Century Europe the internet is a consumer product. The internet and its associated access devices must start to comply with standards commonly found in the consumer space.

Need to press the reset button

The terrible things that have happened online to far too many children are not an unavoidable price which has to be paid in perpetuity so as to continue enjoying the many benefits of the internet. But to change the paradigm requires a major act of political will. The EU needs to press the reset button. The e-Commerce Directive is in need of a major overhaul. That’s what the DSA will do.

Beware the Brussels-Strasbourg cocktails-and-lobbying circuit

In any lobbying or campaigning work any of us might do as the DSA processes evolve – and we are probably talking years – it is impossible to over emphasise the importance of not falling into the trap of thinking everything will be settled by Commission officials and, assuming it ever gets going again, the Brussels-Strasbourg cocktails-and-lobbying circuit.

A major part of the  decision-making machinery is the Council of Ministers.  This consists of Ministers from each country, typically supported by civil servants  and advisers in their own national capital and their permanent delegation in Brussels.

On matters such as these it is vital each of these elements and MEPs know how strongly people feel “back home”.

Briefing document heading your way

I have prepared a (short) briefing document which sets out my own views on the key strategic reforms that are needed. Although I wrote it, it is the product of many discussions with experts from several different disciplines and geographies.

The briefing paper is linked to another (slightly longer) document which acknowledges while the EU has been a  major world leader in many areas connected with children’s safety and children’s rights online (and being held safe is a major right) there have also been some spectacular failures that need to be corrected. Now is the time.

Watch out for these documents in your inboxes in the coming days. Use, adapt or ignore  them as you like in any campaigning you undertake. Hopefully we can join together in some way to make our collective voice louder.

The signs are good

In the past couple of months we have seen Vice President Šuica’s initiative, “Delivering for children: an EU strategy on the rights of the child” and Commissioner Johansson’s Communication on a “Strategy to combat child sexual abuse and exploitation” with its major emphasis on the position of victims of sexual abuse, online and off. There has also been a Communication  on areas of the GDPR that need another look in relation to matters affecting children. Many pieces of the jigsaw are coming together about now.

Add that to the fact almost every major tech company accepts reform of the rules is required, and you can see why I am feeling optimistic. But not naively so.

Optimism can be the graveyard of fools

For all the fine words we are hearing ahead of the match, we have to expect two things.

Whatever  large or small tech companies say in public about how much they recognise the need for a new regulatory framework, when it comes down to the nitty-gritty detail don’t expect their views and ours to be same.  We will not all be holding hands and singing in harmony from the same hymn sheet. That will put a strain on some of the vaunted “partnerships” that exist.

Then there’s the usual suspects in civil society. Many are not quite as starry-eyed as they once were about the, as they saw it, “freedom-loving, insurgent Mother Theresa goodness of Silicon Valley” but we know from bitter experience they will generally find a reason to put children’s interests, children’s rights, lower down the list.