The Green Paper and other things

I have now read all of the Green Paper more thoroughly and there is no doubt in my mind, in terms of its scope and much of its language, it is extremely good.  Of course, at its heart, is the fundamental problem of laws/no laws, to which I referred in my last blog and we’ll see where things end up on that score.

Last week’s  edition of The Spectator (a publication of the Thinking Right)  came out on Friday. It could hardly have been clearer in terms of calling for legal restraints or obligations to control the internet giants. The previous day in the Guardian the same businesses were likened to cars without brakes, saying they must be reined in. Let’s overlook the mixed metaphor and just accept the spirit of it.

Beyond that Jenkins produced this memorable paragraph

The internet is passing through the robber baron phase of capitalism, as manufacturers did in the 19th century. Then, as now, governments were too scared to regulate companies, which grew big and arrogant, and collapsed. I bet this happens to the internet.

It is becoming increasingly difficult to find anyone to speak in favour of the status quo unless, of course, they are in one way or another a client of it or hope to be.

Returning to the Green Paper, there are a couple of surprising omissions and a few issues that will probably generate more heat than light but, as usual with something like this, I am going to be consulting with all the children’s groups in the UK’s Children’s Charities’ Coalition on Internet Safety before responding in detail. So watch out for a blog nearer 7th December – which is the closing date for comments.

Posted in E-commerce, Facebook, Google, Internet governance, Regulation, Self-regulation, Uncategorized

One more visit to the Last Chance Saloon

Today saw the launch of the long-awaited Green Paper (consultative document)  setting out the UK Government’s thinking on what a new internet safety strategy might look like. Containing almost 60 pages of densely written text, it pretty much covers the entire online child safety and child welfare horizon plus a couple of extra bits e.g. fraud and older people. In addition, while online dating sites and hate speech have not, historically, been part of the children’s internet agenda, the fact is they definitely are now so well done to all for including them.

I am not going to try to sum up everything in the Green Paper today but here are three  of what I think are key headlines:

  • The Digital Economy Act, 2017, requires a Code of Practice to be developed to guide or at any rate describe how social media platforms are expected to behave across a broad spectrum of issues. This we already knew. What the Green Paper makes clear is that this could become linked to sanctions regime to ensure compliance. Gulp!  I must have missed that but the key word there is “could”.   We shall see.  Sanctions, or the threat of them, certainly seem to be doing the trick in Germany.
  • A levy is to be established to fund awareness raising and preventative activity although here it is clear it will be voluntary. What is unclear is if the expectation is that it would simply siphon off funds companies are already spending e.g. on initiatives such as  Internet Matters or if it would go into a kitty that the Government would control.
  • Without wishing to diminish the importance of either of the above, for me the truly encouraging bit of the Green Paper concerned what the Government are asking for in terms of transparency.

We simply do not know the truth about the real scale and nature of what is happening to children and young people on the different platforms and how well, or otherwise, the companies responsible are addressing them, within what timescales and so on. And just to make it clear, the we here is not just policy wonks, it is parents, teachers and children and young people themselves.

Given the absolutely central role the internet plays in all our lives it is no longer acceptable for companies to ask everybody to take everything on trust. With great power comes great responsibility and with great responsibility also comes a need for accountability.

There can be no real accountability without transparency.  The transparency dimension is also to be voluntary but on the  Today programme on Radio 4 this morning Karen Bradley MP, Secretary of State  with responsibility in this area, was quite clear (paraphrasing)

If this voluntary approach does not work we will legislate.

I guess I have a rather world-weary sense that that’s where we are going to end up so I am disappointed we didn’t take that final and inevitable step now. Instead, we are making one last visit to the Last Chance Saloon.

And was it a coincidence that just as the Green Paper emerges today we learn that Ofcom finally seems to accept both that the internet can be regulated and that the big internet platforms are in fact publishers?

The wind has been blowing in this direction for quite a while but when even conservative-old  Ofcom starts tacking you sense that it looks like turning into a gale.

Closing date for comments on the Green Paper is 7th December.

Posted in Default settings, E-commerce, Facebook, Google, Internet governance, Microsoft, Regulation, Self-regulation

The Holy Father takes a stand

I have had several comments, ranging from the wry,  sarcastic, through astonished, to utterly disbelieving or critical about my having attended a conference organized by the Catholic Church to discuss child abuse. In Rome of all places! At a time when two senior officials of the Catholic Church are awaiting trial or investigation in relation to child abuse.

As someone who was brought up a Catholic, attended a Jesuit school and has two cousins who are Catholic priests, I think I can claim some sort of, at least minimal, insight and I know with absolute certainty that the massively overwhelming majority of Catholics, and above all the clergy and the leadership, are righteously angry with the individuals within the Church who betrayed the trust placed in them by children. More than once reference was made to child abuse being a “sacrilege” and in Catholic-speak it doesn’t get much stronger than that.

All of the Catholics I know have also been hugely disappointed by the dreadful mistakes the Church as an institution sometimes made in relation to their handling of a number of cases of child abuse when they came to light.  I don’t want to put words in anyone’s mouth but I have an inkling the energetic way in which the Catholic Church’s senior leadership is attacking the problem of child abuse today, particularly within the Church, is at least in part motivated by a desire to expiate and atone for the sins of their collective past.

And if we won’t sit down with the Catholic Church, who will we sit down with? I cannot think of a single institution that has brought adults and children into close proximity that has not experienced exactly the same problems and challenges as those which have beset Catholic bodies. Secular and religious organizations alike have let down kids. Secular and religious alike now know that unless you actively intervene to safeguard children abuse will almost certainly happen and you will not be able to escape the moral and possibly also the legal responsibility for it.

Of course the fall from grace, so to speak, is all the more spectacular, wounding and depressing in an institution such as the Catholic Church which unambiguously founds itself on deeply held ethical principles but the hard-headed fact is the Catholic Church is populated by humans, with all their attendant frailties, failings and weaknesses. If we had forgotten that once, we will never do so again.

Yet it remains the case that the Catholic Church in general, and Pope Francis in particular, exert a unique authority in the world so the fact that they are taking up spiritual arms in the fight for a better internet for children is an event of enormous importance. I was both honoured and delighted to be part of it.

The conference

I have never been to anything like it before. There were several notable absences,  and I have no way of knowing how they came about – could have been simply diary clashes – but otherwise there was an astonishing spread of leading researchers and child protection advocates from across the world. It would be invidious to single out anyone in particular but I was particularly pleased to be able, for the first time, to listen to Michael Seto. I was even more delighted when, by chance, we ended up in the same workshop and could carry on a more direct conversation.

Many of the other speakers I had both met and heard before and it was great to see them again but one complete newbie for me was Professor Elizabeth Letourneau from John Hopkins University. She confidently asserted that child sex abuse is preventable. In Letourneau’s view the problem is too few policymakers believe that and, as a result, do not invest sufficiently in preventative strategies. Individual children and society as a whole consequently pay a much bigger and more terrible price further downstream.

The Declaration of Rome

The major outcome of the conference was the Declaration of Rome which Pope Francis put his name to yesterday morning. Because this was, as it were, both a statement by a religious leader and also a Head of State the wording had been chewed over and worked- on days, possibly weeks, before. Would I have written it differently if it was entirely down to me? Almost certainly, but even so I could not have improved on statements like these, addressed as they were

To the parliaments of the world to improve their laws to better protect children and hold those accountable who abuse and exploit children.

To leaders of technology companies to commit to the development and implementation of new tools and technologies to attack the proliferation of sex abuse images on the Internet, and to interdict the redistribution of the images of identified child victims.

To government agencies, civil society and law enforcement to work to improve the recognition and identification of child victims, and ensure help for the massive numbers of hidden victims of child abuse and sexual exploitation.

To governments, private industry and religious institutions to undertake a global awareness initiative to make citizens in every country more alert and aware regarding the abuse and sexual exploitation of children, and to encourage them to report such abuse or exploitation to appropriate authorities if they see it, know about it or suspect it.

The Declaration of Rome – Part 2

Everybody who attended the conference was assigned to a workshop. Within them there was a rich and varied set of debates and discussions where several quite detailed and specific points were sharply expressed.

These will be reflected in a further statement or supplement to the Declaration of Rome and this will also carry the full weight of Papal authority.

My search engine tells me that crossing fingers probably had pagan origins so it might be inappropriate to invoke it here. But if it wasn’t, that’s what I’d be doing. Watch this space.

Posted in Child abuse images, Default settings, E-commerce, Regulation, Self-regulation

We needed a shout. We got a whimper

Last week the Commission of the European Union issued a press release with a headline which is a little at odds with the contents. Here it is

Commission steps up efforts to tackle illegal content online.

In fact the press release only speaks specifically about terrorism-related items and hate speech. The associated Communication picks up on and refers to a wider range of issues, including child abuse material, but even here there is an acknowledgment that this latest initiative was motivated by the terrorist acts that took place in different EU Member States earlier this year and last.

What are we to conclude from this? The politicians are focused on terrorism, the Commission staff have a broader vision? Hmmm.

Obviously I am pleased more seems to be getting done about terrorism and hate speech but maybe I am also feeling a bit concerned that children are slipping down the ladder. We shall see.

The Communication is (obviously) the more substantial of the two documents.  It is an excellent summary of a range of  EU initiatives and measures which impact on the area of illegal and highly undesirable content but its language is resolutely stuck in the frame of self-regulatory co-operation i.e. the very system that brought us to the present state of affairs.  For companies famed for “getting ahead of the curve” when it comes to technology that will make a buck, with one or two honourable exceptions they always seem not only to be behind the curve but only to start moving forward towards par when pushed by screaming headlines and the politicians’ inevitable follow through. This does not inspire confidence or trust.

In her quote in the press release Commisioner Jourova hints at the prospect of a more muscular, legislative approach if this latest push does not deliver so one is left with a sense that such a scenario may only be one bad set of headlines away. Everything feels flimsy, provisional and contingent. We needed  a shout. We got a whimper.


Transparency is mentioned quite a lot. Here is the key excerpt

Online platforms should publish transparency reports with sufficiently detailed information on the number and type of notices received and actions taken, as well as the time taken for processing, and the source of the notification. These reports should also include information on counter notices, if any, and the response given to these. The Commission encourages the publication of this information on a regular basis and at least once per year.

Good luck with that. When we last discussed something like this with Facebook in the UK they told the Government unequivocally they would not release any information they were not legally obliged to publish.

Assuming that little problem can be solved the Communication still does not make clear how the Commission will satisfy itself everything that can reasonably be done is being done, not just in relation to items reported.

For example will companies include in their transparency reports details of content they found as a result of their own proactive searching?

I applaud the Commission’s obvious enthusiasm for companies becoming more proactive in finding bad stuff on their platform and in making a greater effort to enforce their own terms and conditions of service. I can only express the hope that the Commission has correctly interpreted the law. They say there are no issues with the immunity guaranteed by the eCommerce Directive but, er, they would wouldn’t they? Yet they are not a court.

Finally, it is made clear throughout that the main focus of the Communication is and has been the larger platforms. The smaller guys were in their minds, we are told, but they will be looking at that dimension separately. Good. And remember this: Europe in general and one country in it in particular, Holland, are now the largest sources of online child abuse images in the world How did that happen? You cannot lay it at the door of Facebook, Google,  Microsoft or Twitter. On the contrary, two of those companies, Microsoft and Google, have developed tools which, if more widely deployed or used, could have helped us all avoid that badge of shame.


Posted in Default settings, E-commerce, Facebook, Google, Internet governance, Microsoft, Regulation

Watch out Canada and Mexico! Watch out world!!

Regular readers will be aware of what has been going on with the Backpage saga in the USA. It’s all about the way s.230 of the ironically-named Communications Decency Act, 1996, appeared to be providing a shield for companies like Backpage to facilitate child sex trafficking and other forms of child sexual exploitation.

A Bill proposed by Senators Portman, a Republican,  and Blumenthal, a Democrat, is trying to amend the law, inter alia, to resolve uncertainties which seem to have arisen about the proper construction of s.230. The Portman-Blumenthal Bill would make it crystal clear there is no immunity of any kind for anyone knowingly aiding and abetting companies like Backpage.

The Bill is doing well but there is a long way to go before we can say for sure that the forces of sweetness and light are going to win.

Now park that. We’ll come back to it.

A rumour reaches my ears

Earlier this week I heard an astonishing rumour. Yesterday it was confirmed to be a fact.

So now we know that, even as reform is being debated on the hill, tech firms are lobbying the Trump White House to have a s.230 lookalike incorporated into the NAFTA trade discussions that are going on in a separate part of the forest.

That is chutzpah on stilts.

Watch out Canada and Mexico. Watch out world.

The effect of what the tech firms are doing would be to export a s.230 regime, as is, to poor old Canada and Mexico. And, of course, if this idea makes any headway, it raises the prospect that the same businesses will try to get it included in yet more trade deals with other countries or trading blocs.

Knowing how keen British Prime Minister May is to conclude a post-Brexit trade agreement with the USA that makes me worry. Parochialism aside it should make everyone worry, whatever country they live in, if they have an existing trade agreement with the USA or might be trying to secure one.

At a stretch, could it also mean that whatever befalls the Portman-Blumenthal Bill if a clause makes it into the NAFTA Treaty that will ,er, “trump” the then status quo? No. Surely it couldn’t. Could it?

And global standards? Only when it suits us 

Here’s my other take on this: I have lost count of the number of times, in venues such as the IGF and ICANN, representatives of tech companies and their numerous allies and surrogates have genuflected at the altar of global standards which are the product of a careful, deliberative, evidence-based, multi-stakeholder, bottom-up dialogue and process.

Yet here we see an obvious willingness to ditch that idea altogether in favour of exporting  a hard and very US-centric position.

Words (almost) fail me.

Meanwhile, the Attorney General of the State of California is talking a lot of sense. He is asking the tech industry to sit down with him and others to chart an agreed way forward.

Here’s hoping.

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

Not a fulsome endorsement but….

You know the argument is more or less over when The Economist agrees with you.  Or at any rate, mostly agrees with you. In this week’s edition, the following words appeared in their leader.

If the internet and some of the firms it has spawned have taken over the world, this is the result not simply of entrepreneurial brilliance but also of an implicit subsidy. In America and Europe online platforms have until now inhabited a parallel legal universe. Broadly speaking, relevant media laws—in particular the CDA—exempt them from liability for what their users do or for the harm that their services can cause.

This made sense in the early days of the internet, when it was still a sideshow. Ruinous lawsuits might have crushed then-infant digital ventures. But today online firms have come to dominate entire industries. 

Elsewhere in the same edition, in a column headed “What if large tech firms were regulated like sewage companies?” (sorry  this bit is behind their paywall so I will have to quote from it for you) certain large platforms are identified as extracting monopoly profits. The Economist thinks this means, inevitably, regulation should be  “regarded as being a long-term threat”.  Here is where The Economist and I agree but I think saying  “long-term” may only be wishful thinking. They are expressing a hope rather than a certainty.

However, ever the friend of big business, the following are advanced as defences to ward off or delay such a dreadful fate. The frankness is to be commended.

First, it is suggested the online monopolists could try

(bundling) their services so tightly that it is impossible for outsiders to isolate products that are monopolies and work out their profits and assets.”

The second tactic is to  “lobby Washington……For tech firms, financial obfuscation and cronyism are the most effective ways to ensure their monopoly profits do not go down the drain.”

I’m guessing you’d run both strategies together.

Several examples of how this has worked in the past are given but I think we can be pretty sure Silicon Valley had already worked this out.

Going back to the timescale, I can almost see it shortening before my very eyes and it would not take much for the whole thing to be put on an extremely fast track.

Posted in Internet governance, Regulation, Self-regulation

Stuck in a time warp

Yesterday in the US Senate the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee held a hearing on a proposed amendment to s. 230 of the ironically named Communications Decency Act (CDA) – the shield behind which Backpage indecently hid for years. I will be writing about this more substantively soon but my breath was rather taken away by the testimony of Senator Wyden (starts just before the one hour mark if you want to watch).

Wyden was one of the principal authors of the original s.230 back in 1996 and while he had the good grace to acknowledge that things had not worked out exactly as he had envisaged, he was standing by it because he wants to “defend the little guy – the gutsy start up”  so they can “hire engineers rather than lawyers” to help get their business going. And this in a space  utterly dominated by around half a dozen mammoth concerns with enormous wealth and the power that goes with it.

There was once a green field where gutsy little guys could prosper but that plot of land was sold long ago and has been heavily built on since.

Wyden boasted that the way they had set things up in the USA  had created a “trillion dollars of value for US businesses” and said that although India and China had more people and computer users than the USA  they couldn’t have done the same thing because they didn’t have the equivalent of s. 230 and a wider body of internet laws. Who knew?

Wyden then referred to France as an example of another benighted land that had got it wrong, the implication being that they too hadn’t had the foresight or the imagination to adopt a s.230 lookalike. Thus is the history of Minitel noted and dismissed.

It’s hard to know where to begin. So I won’t. Yet.

Posted in Internet governance, Pornography, Regulation, Self-regulation, Uncategorized