The strange and sudden death of self-regulation


In the UK, and  among EU institutions, the idea of self-regulation has reigned supreme pretty much since the arrival of the worldwide web in the early to mid 1990s started the internet on its trajectory  towards becoming the mass medium we know today.  The policy appeared to be widely and strongly supported by the internet  industry as well as the politicians and senior officials who espoused it.

At EU level the most recent and prominent examples of the doctrine at work  was evidenced by the creation of the CEO Coalition, followed swiftly by the ICT Coalition.  A  “Community of Practice” was even created to institutionalize the notion.

It all started with child abuse images

In the late 20th Century  across a number of  EU Member States hotlines started springing up to address the growing challenge of child abuse images appearing on the internet. In the UK’s case we established the IWF in 1996. In Britain and several other countries industry took the lead in getting the hotlines going but the EU stepped in to encourage this trend by helping with money.

Filtering and blocking child abuse images arrives

Around 2004 the IWF and BT  pioneered url blocking as a means of restricting access to urls known to contain child abuse images prior to their eventual (and hopefully speedy) deletion at source. Historically, apart from  Italy  no country required internet service providers to carry out this type of url blocking but a large and growing number of online businesses did so on a voluntary basis.

I cannot speak for every hotline or  speak to how they each handle these matters but the IWF compiles a list of qualifying urls  and updates and distributes it twice daily to the many companies that use it to help keep their networks free of child abuse images. The practice was never challenged in the courts, moreover the wider legal basis on which the IWF operated was set out in a memorandum issued jointly by the Crown Prosecution Service and the Association of Chief Police Officers. Later a leading human rights lawyer gave the IWF a clean bill of health.

Parents are very concerned about a range of adult content

In the UK we also took things a step further. We responded to parental concerns to shield their children from age inappropriate but otherwise legal content by introducing default-on  parental control software that operated at network level.

The mobile phone companies started doing this around 2005. Sky Broadband joined the club more recently. In the case of Sky parents could decide to modify or completely remove the filters.  In relation to mobiles it was necessary only to complete an age verification process to get the filters lifted. In addition WiFi providers decided to introduce default-on filters but these would only work in public spaces where it was reasonable to expect children to be found on a regular basis.

Default- on filters met a huge parental demand for simplicity of implementation. It is accompanied by a great deal of education and awareness activity both before and after the fact.

Not censorship

This is not censorship. No content on the internet is removed or changed because of parental controls software.  In the UK we have simply been seeking a way to replicate in the online space measures  or laws which have been taken for granted in the physical world for a long time. The internet is not exempt from these laws or expectations but it has been difficult to find a way to implement them. The UK’s approach was and it is still, strictly-speaking, experimental because we have yet to see a report as to its effectiveness. Clearly the lack of evidence one way or the other did not deter the legislators at the EU. They obviously made their decision based on first principles – but first principles of what sort exactly?

All blown away

It looks like all of the above has to go. Henceforth each Member State that wants to engage with online child safety in the ways outlined will have to pass a law either to allow  parental controls software to be deployed at network level or, in the case of blocking access to child abuse images, to make it mandatory. You won’t be permitted to block access to known child abuse urls on a voluntary basis. The state has to require you to do it.

How did this come about?

In a legislative instrument that addressed net neutrality.

In the past when the EU has debated issues concerned with online child protection it has been clear from the title of the document or the draft instrument that this was the focus of the measure or at any rate that it was a principal focus. The online child protection community, parents and children’s organizations were put on notice and were able to engage, mobilise, lobby and express their views. Officials in the Commission, and doubtless within Member States, concerned with children’s policy  were drawn in to the debate.

None of this happened here. It really is a disgraceful way to make new laws and to end a 20- year old policy. I leave on one side for now the potential political impact in countries such as the UK where Euro- sceptics  will doubtless make hay with it.

There will be a transition period

The final text of the Directive has yet to be published but I have seen a (leaked) copy of the words that emerged from the Trialogue and I have spoken to several people close to the process, including lawyers. I am reasonably sure my reading of the situation is correct although “check against delivery” is always sound practice.

It appears there will be a transition period so nothing will end abruptly. Moreover I don’t doubt the UK will be able to pass the necessary laws in roughly 5 minutes if needed but can we be confident that there will be no legislative congestion or other political complications in every Member State?

The future of the IWF in the balance?

Internet businesses were willing to establish and fund it when the IWF was a shining example of self-regulation. But now that seemingly everything of importance associated with what the IWF does is becoming the subject of legislation, indeed is becoming a legal requirement, some will ask why they should pay for it at all, or anyway why should they pay for it as an additional item to, say, the police service?

The EU has not covered itself in glory with this sad little episode. I fear the consequences will be far reaching. I am sure many of our leading online companies will continue to work collaboratively and voluntarily through bodies such as the ICT Coalition. The need for them to be seen to promote good online child safety practices has not gone away but the voices of the sceptics within their businesses will have been greatly strengthened. Start ups will feel even less inclined to become involved if they see that well-intentioned self-regulatory efforts can be reduced to nought so casually.

Earlier parallels?

The last time the EU seriously engaged with the question of online child abuse images was in the context of the Directive on combating the sexual abuse and sexual exploitation of children and child pornography. It was adopted in 2011.

Unlike this time around the argument was  then very public and it was protracted. There were public hearings in the Parliament and elsewhere. Arguments raged in newspapers and all parts of the media. Practically every children’s organization argued that blocking access to child abuse images prior to their deletion should be made compulsory. We lost.  Article 25, 2 of the Directive made it optional. Now the EU has moved on again. It seems such blocking is not even allowed to be optional.  Each State has to make it compulsory or it cannot happen at all.


Posted in Uncategorized

A major failure of internet governance

The Internet Governance Forum (IGF) sits at the centre of a complex network of bodies and institutions of different kinds which concern themselves with the still relatively new public discourse on internet governance.

I was involved in making submissions to the WSIS processes that preceded the creation of the IGF. On behalf of eNACSO  I have attended every (annual) meeting of the IGF except the first one, which was held in Athens in 2006. I have attended every meeting of its European regional off shoot, EuroDIG, as well as several of the UK national IGFs where I went on behalf of the UK Children’s Charities’ Coalition on Internet Safety (CHIS). Nobody can say these children’s groups haven’t invested heavily in the WSIS and IGF sponsored multistakeholder model of internet governance.

The only major internet governance event in recent times that I could have gone to but didn’t, and nor did anyone from eNACSO or CHIS, was the Net Mundial conference held in Sao Paulo, Brazil, in 2014. The children’s groups I work with just couldn’t afford to send anyone to another gig that year, especially one so (expensively) far away from home.

Big Mistake

Assuming you accept that there is some actual or potential value in the dialogue around internet governance – which I do unreservedly – it turns out that not going was a mistake. Net Mundial was the IGF on steroids. We had no way of knowing at the time how big a mistake it was going to be, but even if we had, short of robbing a bank I’m not sure what we could have done about it anyway.

Who was there?

I looked at the official list of  representatives who went to NetMundial. Governments seemed to be the largest single bloc. Post-Snowden and the revelations about the NSA tapping the Brazilian President’s phone, privacy activists also seem to have been especially thick on the ground.

Among the named civil society representatives in Sao Paulo I did not see any children’s or young people’s organizations that I knew had a history of or track record in attending IGFs or in pursuing the internet governance agenda from the perspective of children’s and young people’s rights. But then I don’t know everybody. On closer examination of the attendees I found two that appeared at least to have some connection with youth oriented affairs. These were the “Bible Hill Youth Club of India” and the YMCA Computer Training Centre and Digital Studio from The Gambia. There were none that appeared to have a connection to children’s issues.

Hello Lee Hibbard

Lee Hibbard works for the Council of Europe. He is one of the world’s leading authorities on internet governance. Last week in a workshop which I attended at the 2015 EuroDIG meeting he said something along these lines

The Net Mundial Statement (NMS) represents the best available summation and distillation of thinking on internet governance to date. It has a very broad basis of support across the world.

In diplo-speak The Statement represents the formal outcome or results of the entire event and the negotiations leading up to it. Every single word in The Statement will have been carefully weighed and considered, probably fought over.

According to Lee,  it seems before NMS was adopted there were “around 25 different charters, declarations and manifestos” which different actors had drawn up to describe what they thought internet governance is about or ought to be about. Thus a key goal of NMS was to draw a veil over such chaos. The consensus seems to be that in this respect NMS succeeded brilliantly. NMS has become a defining document. A guiding star. A new point of departure. Oh dear.

So what is not in The Statement?

If you read NMS carefully you will note that none of the following four words appear anywhere in the text: “child”, “children”, “youth” or “young”.  Not even once. How can that be when one in three of all internet users across the world are below the age of 18? In some of the developing nations the proportion is higher.

Could it be that as NMS was being drawn up the authors consciously decided not to refer to any specific or particular interest groups? Did they, for whatever reason, want to keep The Statement at a stratospherically high level so as to avoid special pleading and hang on to a universalist framework? No. That cannot be the reason because, for example, at several points explicit references are made to the position of people with disabilities in relation to cyberspace.

More specifically within NMS there is a short recitation of international instruments which are said to be important or noteworthy in the context of a discussion about internet governance. The Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities is listed there. The Convention on the Rights of the Child is not.

The Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities has been open for adoption since 2007. The Convention on the Rights of the Child has been out there since 1989.

In search of enlightenment

I told everyone in the EuroDIG workshop that because I didn’t make it to Net Mundial I did not know exactly how things had panned out there. In search of enlightenment I posed a question

Is the explanation for what happened in Brazil no more complicated than this? The reason people with disabilities gets a mention in the statement  and children don’t is because the disabilities lobby was present in Sao Paulo and the children’s lobby effectively was not?

I was a little shocked by the answer, which came from Markus Kummer. If Lee Hibbard is a Prince in the land of internet governance Markus is the Emperor.

Per Markus

Markus’s reply was instant and clear

Yes that is the explanation. NMS was drawn up on the basis of a rough consensus. To the best of my knowledge the question of children and the internet wasn’t raised by anyone whereas the position of people with disabilities was.

Nobody in the room who had been to Net Mundial sought to qualify or disagree with Marcus’s analysis.

Now I am absolutely delighted that people with disabilities were recognised as having special needs in relation to the internet. I have no complaints at all in that respect. But think about what Marcus Kummer’s  answer reveals.

Who didn’t speak up for children and young people?

Think about how many (and which) national Governments were there in Sao Paulo, and about the level at which the Commission of the European Union was represented. And then there was everyone else.  None of them thought to mention one in three of all internet users in the world?

Even if there was a mention of children and young people that somehow managed to escape Markus Kummer’s hearing it is self-evidently the case that in one way or another the words were not presented persuasively or persistently enough to claim a place in

the best available summation and distillation of thinking on internet governance to date. 

Back in the world of diplo-speak zero words equals zero recognition.

Thus for all the palaver of the Internet Governance Forum since 2005-6 and all the rigmarole of its many national and regional off shoots, for all of the claims made about how the IGF has advanced the terms of the debate, with regard to children and the internet when the rubber hit the road what did we end up with? Zilch. Not even a trace.

Geo-politics and commercial interests rule

People go to events like Net Mundial and the IGF because they have an agenda. I am guessing that nobody in Sao Paulo was positively hostile to children’s interests or rights. They just didn’t think of it as being front and centre of what they were there to do and at one level I get that (although I think  a number of people have some explaining to do).

Occupying themselves with the mega geo-politics of China,  the USA, Russia, the EU, Brazil, Iran, Saudi Arabia, with ICANN, the IANA Transition, the position of rights holders, the post-Snowden agenda and the rest it is not hard to work out why kids got overlooked. But that doesn’t make it right or in any way  acceptable, not least because it happens all the time across the internet governance space.

Enough already with the hindsight

Returning to Net Mundial and continuing to accept at face value that there is some point to all this internet governance stuff, with hindsight it is clear children’s organizations should have been there in greater force and to the extent that they weren’t first and foremost represents a failure of the machinery of internet governance itself.

Truly this is a structural or institutional failing and the powers that be should think of it in that way. Instead of being defensive they should come up with some solutions. Simply apologising (again) for the imperfections or promising to try to do better next time won’t cut it. Alternatively those involved in and proselytizing for internet governance need to dial back the rhetoric of “community”, “inclusiveness” and “multistakeholder”. Travel budgets should not be the key determinant of whether or not your voice is heard and registered, particularly where that voice speaks for one in three of all internet users.

Posted in Internet governance, Regulation, Self-regulation

Time, money and internet governance

I attended an extremely interesting briefing in Brussels recently. It was organized by the European Internet Foundation  (EIF) and featured Fadi Chehade, CEO of ICANN. He is an impressive communicator. Fadi delivered a wonderfully clear and concise account of the current state of play with the IANA Transition. Fingers crossed that it all goes smoothly and, above all, to time. If the whole business of the transition gets mixed up in the forthcoming US Presidential campaigns the risk of failure increases substantially and that could have dire consequences for the future of  the internet. Apparently.

Anyway, that’s kind of a preamble. As usual at these sorts of events there was more than a small sprinkling of professional lobbyists and corporate employees whose primary job is to track developments in and around the public policy making  and regulatory arenas insofar as they affect the internet space.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not complaining about lobbyists and employees of that sort. They do an extremely important job. As long as there is a high degree of transparency about their contacts with governments and regulators I am absolutely certain they can help improve the quality of decision-making all round. If anything my remarks are tinged with great envy.  Here’s why.

I have been writing recently about what I think is a potential disaster for the UK approach to online child protection  coming down the track courtesy of the EU. At the EIF meeting I made a casual remark  along these lines to one of the lobbyist types  in the room adding that the enormity of what was going on had dawned on me only comparatively recently.

I was met by a sneering rebuke to the effect “You can’t complain when you come to the party so late.”  I’m not going to name and embarrass the guy who said this. Maybe he was just having a bad day but actually what he was raising is an important dimension of what passes for internet governance.

If you are not a professional lobbyist, or you don’t have professional lobbyists working for you, it is simply impossible to keep track of everything that’s happening in the online world  and therefore it is impossible to know how best and when to intervene and on what. Certainly the way the Commission and the Parliament work does not make it easy for non-professionals to engage with them. It is partly a question of complexity and partly a matter of scale. You drown in a deluge of emails, newsletters and updates. And here is where the current lobbying system can break down and put the democratic process at risk.

It may asking for too much to say there ought to be a completely level playing field for everyone who wishes to represent their views to EU institutions –  I wish –  but if that famous field doesn’t get  a lot more level than it seems to be right now the risk of European citizens feeling even more isolated from the EU project will continue unabated and probably it will increase.

My work in Europe is channelled principally through eNACSO. We exist and do the best we can on a fifth of a shoe string. But even that slender thread may be plucked from us as the funding is not promised beyond September, 2016.  If eNACSO goes there will be no pan-European children’s organization that is tasked with trying to cover the online waterfront from the perspective of children’s rights. In my next blog I will show why that is absolutely guaranteed to produce undesirable outcomes for kids.

Posted in Default settings, E-commerce, Internet governance, Regulation, Self-regulation, Uncategorized

Bits of the industry have a lot to answer for

The Digital Citizens Alliance has carried out some mega research into the financial basis of piracy web sites. Specifically they looked at how advertising is helping to keep them afloat. It is the second such publication. The first one I missed. It came out in February 2014 and was called  Good Money Gone Bad. The sequel arrived a couple of weeks ago and the title alone tells us something important Good Money Still Going Bad.

Huge sums involved

I was astonished by the  amount of money the piracy sites were raking in. In the 2014 report the researchers estimated that, in 2013, the 596 sites they looked at generated around US$ 227 millions in ad revenues.  The 30 largest averaged over US$ 4 millions and some took in excess of US$ 6 million. Even small piracy sites were taking over US$100,000 per annum. This is not pocket change and underlines, yet again, the real nature of piracy sites. Modern-day Robin Hoods they are not.  Piracy sites are run by villains dedicated to their own personal enrichment off the back of other people’s  work.

In the 2015 document  589 piracy sites  were included in the sample. It was calculated that between them they had earned around US$ 209 millions.  Down a little bit although not much. But what they found in 2015 was that over 40% of the sites they had examined first time around had either closed  down or the revenues  had shrunk to  a point where they fell outside the criteria for inclusion in the research sample.

One conclusion we can draw from this high rate of attrition – and the fact that  so many new sites had sprung up to replace the disappeared ones – is that the barriers to entry to being a pirate  and starting to  collect dollars from ads must be low.

A simple step?

How difficult would it be for an ad network to inspect any new site or company with whom it starts to place clients’  ads? Before putting business their way could they not satisfy themselves that they are not going to be aiding and abetting piracy? And how hard would it be for brands to tell their advertising agencies or whoever places ads for them that they must also ensure their products do not get tainted by association with these dismal places.

Premium Brands are involved

It is surprising that, with all the publicity there has been around the issue of piracy and the sites that make it possible 132 “premium brands” were nevertheless  still found advertising their wares on piracy sites. This was up from 89 in the first study.  How did that happen? See below for more details and names.

Video-streaming piracy sites on the march

We all know that across the piece video streaming is growing rapidly on the internet but Bad Money reveals  that so are piracy sites that are based on streaming, up 40% from the first report. I’d like to look into this dimension more closely at some point – or at any rate the cops should – because of the way in which video streaming sites are starting to become a major feature in child sex abuse cases. Are there links?

Not good places for kids

Which brings me full circle to my primary interest which is the way piracy sites not only draw children and young people into believing it is OK to steal but also  how they put children and young people at risk in other ways.

For several reasons piracy sites are singularly unsuitable environments for youngsters  but one of them relates to the sort of ads they routinely carry. 17%  of the sites surveyed in the 2015 report carried  ads for “adult content”. This typically includes hard core porn and prostitution services, and that’s on top of the malware and fraudsters waiting for inexperienced or unsuspecting prey.  Then there’s the dodgy pharmaceuticals. In the UK we have had a number of reports of young people dying  because they consumed fake drugs they bought on the internet only to be poisoned by them.

Some of the famous names

Appendix E  of Bad Money lists some of the premium brands whose ads they found on piracy sites.  It’s quite an eye opener: Ford, Capital One, Nike, eBay,  ING Bank, Jeep, Volkswagen. It goes on. Have a look for yourself. And in Appendix F  we find the name of the ad networks that placed some or all of these ads on the piracy sites.

These guys need to act

Any company whose name appears in Appendix E  should be ashamed of itself. I am sure they did not intend to support thieves who put kids at risk but by failing to be sufficiently diligent in the way they allowed their ads to be placed they have truly fallen down on the job and must do better.

I know a lot less about how ad networks operate. The names of the networks listed in Appendix F will be less well known  to most people but they are all out there now in the public domain. At the very least the people running these networks should pause for thought.Some of the ones listed in Appendix F may not care about supporting piracy sites but I would be surprised if that applied to all or most.

Piracy sites are not philanthropic. They are about making money. Everyone should try to ensure sure they don’t make any more. Our kids deserve nothing less.

Posted in Advertising, E-commerce, Internet governance, Pornography, Regulation, Self-regulation

More on online child protection and net neutrality

In the leaked draft prepared by the Latvian Presidency,   to which I referred in an earlier blog,  I “revealed” the author’s apparent intention to do two (new) things:  (a) make it a requirement for prior explicit consent  to be given before parental controls software could be deployed  on an end user’s account by an internet access provider and  (b) to insist  that such consent could be withdrawn at any time, presumably either temporarily or forever.

This is problematic in the UK because, for example, in respect of our mobile networks at the moment minors  simply cannot consent to being exposed to adult content.  The Presidency document would have ended that.

Right now in the UK if an end user is unable to prove he or she is over 18 the adult bar stays in place. Full stop. Incidentally the overwhelming majority of people are able to prove their age online, or via a phone call.  It’s easy and quick. There is an option to “go into the shop” to carry out or conclude the age verification process but, contrary to impressions that may have been given elsewhere, that is definitely not the only way.

The system of classification  used to determine whether particular content is or is not “adult” is underwritten for the mobile networks  by the British Board of Film Classification, an entirely independent, much respected body in the UK. Its brand is almost universally recognised.

Before the BBFC got involved some stupid mistakes were made. All new processes tend to have teething difficulties but now a procedure is in place which will swiftly rectify any errors that may occur – I mean will occur – in the  future.

For kids but not by kids

Say you bought a mobile for someone under the age of 18, or indeed if they bought it themselves (perhaps for cash in a supermarket) under the terms of the Latvian draft, precisely because they are under 18, it seems they would not have the legal standing to ask for the filters to be turned on. Thus a measure designed to protect children from age inappropriate content, in theory, cannot be activated by children. Brilliant.  Who thought that one up? And were we meant to understand that while only an adult could ask for parental controls to be turned on  anyone of any age can get them turned off?

A lot worse for WiFI?

In respect of providers of WiFi in public spaces where kids are present,  another problem presents itself in relation to consent. Under current arrangements in such environments nobody is asked if they consent to access to porn being blocked. It follows nobody can withdraw what they haven’t given.

Do some kids deserve protecting while others don’t?

In respect of any ISP or other type of provider that applies default-on filters in the way described above,  it is one thing to argue that the filters are rubbish and valueless but if one accepts that filters have some value in protecting children from age inappropriate content, why is it that only some kids should be allowed to benefit from them, those being the ones whose parents have the knowledge, time, inclination and competence to initiate their use?

Do we just say “tough luck”  to those kids unlucky enough  not to have parents like that? “Not my problem. Move along.”

A question of hoops

If parents want to jump through hoops to liberalise or completely abandon filters that’s fine, it’s their choice but it should never be the other way around.

When you buy a bottle of bleach in a shop it comes with a safety cap on it. Recognising that huge number of ever younger kids are internet users, the same should apply. Filters are a virtual safety cap. Not the only thing we should do to help keep kids safe when they go online but one of them.

The internet is a mixed environment

It is no longer acceptable in my book to assume that the internet is a predominantly adult environment where “special measures” may need to be taken from time to time or in particular circumstances to take account of the fact that kids might be users.

The internet is a mixed environment where kids  will always make up a very substantial proportion of all users.  Everybody’s thinking about almost any and every aspect of internet policy should be framed with that cardinal fact constantly in mind. It should never be an afterthought, irritating or otherwise.

Looking a little wider than the EU, in some parts of the developing world sub-18s are close to being about half of all users and there will be a significant proportion of child users who have no parents at all.  Do we owe them no duty of care? Is that double bad luck for them?

I appreciate people’s concerns about the way “bad governments” could misuse the notion of online child protection  to “slip in” other forms of societal control or oppression but that is a larger, wider, bigger and different political problem. It should not be solved at the expense of protecting children.

Censorship is not the issue here

Remember we are not talking about censorship. No legal content that is on the internet will disappear or be changed as a result of anything I have advocated here or elsewhere. This is about seeking to replicate in the online space policies and practices that have long been taken for granted in the real world to keep age inappropriate materials out of the reach of minors. I acknowledge that this might cause minor irritations or small delays to some adults who want to access material that is not intended for children but only the most curmudgeonly nerds will truly resent such measures if they accept the wider benefits that they can bring.

Posted in Age verification, Default settings, Internet governance, Regulation, Self-regulation

Life’s little ironies – Part 1

Some of those who have most vociferously argued for the state to keep out of the internet’s affairs, arguing everything should be left to “the community” to sort things out in a self-regulatory way, are among the most voluble in urging that governments should step in to declare and preserve  (their notion) of “net neutrality”.

Same goes for those who believe the operation of markets is typically/usually/almost always superior to any attempt to constrain behaviour by state sponsored regulation. If the free marketeers were to be given free rein in the internet space “net neutrality” would not make it out of the starting blocks.

Net neutrality advocates are trying to hold back the tide by insisting that the internet as it once was  or as it was originally conceived to be should be preserved in that way in perpetuity.  If only. Net neutrality is a lovely idea. I am quite clear about that but it has finally collided with the real world and my guess is the real world will win. It usually does.

And some of us who are less engaged with these matters may wonder why, when so many other aspects of the original conceptions behind the internet have been trashed or disappeared we should go into battle on this one?

The net neutrality argument is a battle about different business models. Excuse me if that does not float my boat or have me rushing to the e-barricades.


Posted in Default settings, E-commerce, Internet governance, Regulation, Self-regulation, Uncategorized

You couldn’t make it up

I wonder if Nigel Farage – leader of the UK’s  anti-EU party – has a cousin or at any rate a friend working within European institutions, conspiring with him to help convince Brits we ought to leave the EU? I’m beginning to think so. How else can we explain the utterly bizarre attack the EU seems to be mounting on online child safety in the UK?

Here is the essence of the story. When you’ve read it you’ll know why I chose the headline you can see above.

It begins with roaming charges and net neutrality

I think we all know what roaming charges are: these are the extra costs the mobile phone networks levy on us when we use our mobile phones outside of the country in which we normally reside.

Many of us think roaming charges are or have been extortionate and so did lots of Members of the European Parliament and the Commission of the European Union. Last summer a measure was brought to the Parliament which would restrict the ability of the mobile networks to charge so much.  Bravo.

I am not sure why exactly but the stuff on roaming charges got put into a single legislative instrument that also dealt with net neutrality. No falling asleep at the back please. Pay attention. I’m getting there.

Net what?

While huge numbers of people  will know about roaming charges I doubt if you randomly selected  a hundred thousand people you would find more than one who was tuned in to (nerdy) net neutrality. The other 999,999 would probably guess it has something to do with  saving baby dolphins.

In fact the debate about net neutrality is fundamentally an argument about managing traffic on the internet. The companies who build and own the physical infrastructure of the internet –  the cables, wireless masts  and so on –  think it is unfair that businesses like Netflix, Google and Facebook (for example) can amass great fortunes without making any direct contribution to the cost of the internet’s nuts and bolts. As they see it such companies get a free ride on other people’s investments.

And it’s going to get worse

As the demands on the  internet’s  infrastructure grow, particularly in respect of the increasing amount of video being transmitted, so some of the infrastructure companies dreamed up the idea of offering to give preferential treatment to  online businesses that paid them for it.

Critics argued this offended against a basic tenet of the internet which holds that all (legal) traffic should be treated equally. It was further suggested that bigger, richer, already established businesses could afford to pay premium rates to get their product, service or content delivered more quickly or reliably, and in so doing they would be discriminating against new start ups. This, in turn,  would stifle innovation.

No mention of children

By now you will be asking what  any of this has got to do with children and their use of the internet? The answer should be absolutely nothing but sadly that is not the case, thanks to the diligent efforts of Nigel’s cousin.

In the bit of the proposal designed to deal with traffic management the wording originally proposed appeared to ban any attempt by any internet access provider e.g. a mobile phone company, an ISP or a WiFi provider, to restrict or manage any kind of legal content on the internet. But that is precisely what has been happening in the UK for many years in respect of pornography and other types of adult content. The mobile phone companies started doing it in 2005 and following David Cameron’s recent energetic intervention the ISPs and WiFi providers have been doing likewise.

For the avoidance of doubt

In order to avoid any doubt about the legality of what the UK internet industry was already doing, during the “Trialogue” discussions (don’t ask) UK civil servants proposed some new words  be included in the draft law. These words would make it clear that steps taken to protect children when they went online would be exempt from a general ban on traffic management.

You might have thought such a proposal would be readily accepted. It wasn’t. On the contrary the latest version of the text demands that before parental controls can be deployed in respect of an individual account the access provider must obtain the explicit prior consent of the account holder.

At a stroke this kills off the default-on approach  which has been adopted by of all of our mobile phone companies, by  Sky Broadband as well as the WiFi providers who have signed on to the Friendly WiFi scheme. And it all seems a bit sneaky or tacky for this to have come about as the result of a measure which, ostensibly, has nothing whatsoever to do with online child safety.

Why did the British internet industry go for default-on in the first place? Because time and again parents in the UK said they liked the idea of using filters but they had found the whole business of setting them up to be too daunting or difficult. Default-on  filters streamlined and simplified the whole process.

Parents should not have to jump through hoops to make the internet safer

If parents want to liberalise the settings that’s their choice.  They can do it with a modicum of effort. This  is not about censorship  but parents shouldn’t have to struggle to make things better and safer for their kids.

Left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing?

Elsewhere in the Commission a lot of work has been going on around online child safety but clearly Robert Madelin’s reach does not extend into all the parts it needs to. Once again the case is made for stronger, higher level co-ordination of policy affecting children.

The ill-considered  proposal should be withdrawn forthwith.

There should be no penalty or prohibition attaching to any internet access provider taking reasonable steps to help protect children from age inappropriate content or services on the internet. The opposite should be the case. The European Union should be encouraging access providers to do just that.

Posted in Consent, Default settings, Facebook, Google, Internet governance, Mobile phones, Pornography, Privacy, Regulation, Self-regulation | 2 Comments