In Parliament

On Wednesday in a “Westminster Hall “debate MPs discussed the seemingly ever-upcoming Online Harms Bill. The fact that this debate happened at all was down to the energetic engagement of Holly Lynch the Member of Parliament for Halifax, West Yorkshire. Lynch opened and closed the debate with great skill and aplomb. I’d say she’s one to watch for the future. Halifax is lucky to have her.

The debate provided MPs from all political parties an opportunity to voice the concerns of their constituents and discuss the causes they support. As is customary, the Government sent the relevant Minister to listen and respond. MPs from the Labour, Conservative, Scottish National and Democratic Unionist parties spoke. There was a surprising degree of unanimity. But there again, maybe it wasn’t so surprising.

Wails and lamentations

Everyone lamented the delay in publishing the Government’s final response to the consultation on Online Harms. The Minister said a document will be released before the end of this calendar year with a Bill to follow early in the New Year. Nothing new there then. No obvious sense of urgency.

Neither did we hear definitively whether the Bill will be subject to pre-legislative scrutiny by a Committee of both Houses of Parliament. There was a suggestion it might even be 2024 before some or all parts of the legislation become operative. See above.

Bear in mind the Green Paper that started off this whole process was first published in October 2017. Seven years is a long time in the life of a child and it is a whole generation of young children.

Support for age verification remains undimmed. Apparently.

The Government once again reiterated its support for age verification for pornography sites, insisting they want to bring social media within scope. There were references to a major research project the Government is supporting which is designed to produce reliable “age assurance” technologies. This has been mentioned before but perhaps not at such length.

The implication is we may soon see tools being released which allow for the age of children below 18 to be confirmed with a high degree of certainty. This could open up a whole new chapter in online child protection.

The changing and challenging politics of Westminster

What is clear from Wednesday’s debate and from the evolving political landscape in the UK, is Government backbenchers no longer see their frontbenchers, and in particular their Prime Minister, as a safe pair of hands or an infallible demi-god who will always deliver victory on everything, forever. Blame Covid and Brexit.

The sheen of impregnability has gone. Ministers can no longer take it for granted they can get a majority for any old rubbish the (so-called) libertarians in No 10 or scaredy-cats elsewhere in Whitehall might want to throw at them.

The mood of backbench Tory MPs matches well with the mood of MPs across the House. They want measures that will force Big Tech to do a far better job, both generally and in particular when it comes to children’s rights and the protection of children. The only way to achieve that is through laws with teeth. Whatever trust in tech might have been knocking about has been scattered to the winds by their highly visible and repeated failures. Hiring smart lawyers and lobbyists isn’t going to change that. If anything it will only heighten politicians’ determination to “get regulation done“, to coin a phrase.

Danger and opportunity in the air

It is clear that with this mood of tech militancy there is danger in the air. Some might see it as an opportunity. When a Bill finally appears in either House, unless it is up to snuff just about anything could happen. It will be a brave MP, Peer or Minister, who stands up and says “steady on, let’s not be too hard on these groovy Californians“. Who will push back or speak up for tech interests? Only themselves and a handful of marginal bodies. Think Tanks, research bodies and academics who have been significantly funded by or are or have been close to tech will need to tread with care lest their otherwise sensible insights get drowned out in accusations they have been bought and paid for.

Here is a simple statement of fact. Whatever else is might also be the internet and its associated technologies, including the devices which can be used to connect to it, are now firmly within the consumer and family market. All parts of the internet value chain have to start acting as if they unreservedly accept that. The Wild West days are well and truly over.

In the context of the internet and tech, children’s and families’ interests can no longer be discussed as if they inevitably pose a threat to free speech or political rights, either in this country or any other. I am all in favour of “striking a balance” in this as in all things, but up to now, as far as I can see, that means children’s rights and interests get overlooked or put at the back of the queue. Enough already.

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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