It’s Time To Look At The Bigger Picture

The UK Government recently released its Internet Safety Strategy Green Paper – a long awaited insight into their plans to deliver its commitment to making the country “the safest place to be online”.

This is an important first step in addressing the challenges associated with the internet such as cyberbullying, trolling and sextortion. However, there is still more to do if we are to truly realise this vision and keep everyone, and perhaps most importantly children safe.

The Paper focuses largely on the role that social media companies can play in addressing the problem and proposes various voluntary, non-legislative measures to incentivise them to behave more responsibly.

It also rightly emphasises the importance of education and ensuring that young people, parents and wider society understand the risks they face online, how to mitigate these and stay safe.

However, I would argue that the premise behind the Green Paper is flawed.

Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, Karen Bradley MP has emphasised the importance of ensuring that we are not limiting the opportunities presented by the internet and that we can continue to benefit from everything it offers, safely and securely.

The Secretary of State is not wrong. In fact, I firmly agree with her. However, framing the debate in this way prevents it from moving forwards and generating solutions.

It means that any suggestion of doing things differently, such as introducing regulation, is often equated with curtailing free speech and holding back progress. This is how social media companies want us to think – it plays into their hands and limits their responsibilities. And, frankly, in a post-Brexit world, the UK doesn’t want to be seen as a country run by luddites shying away from technology.

In her book, Cyber Effects, cyberpsychologist, Mary Aiken highlights how the idea that the internet must be either a good or a bad thing is limiting public discourse, as it forces us to pick a side – leaving us hamstrung.

This mindset means that whilst the solutions Government is proposing will make the internet marginally safer, they don’t go far enough.

Instead, we need to look at the bigger picture of online safety and what this means for our children. Aiken argues that we need to think about “how we live intelligently with digital technology”. She contends that we must accept that the internet is changing our behaviour – too often facilitating anti-social behaviour – and actively respond to these changes.

In recognising that human behaviour is being changed by the internet, we must also recognise that as a result there is a new frontier where the UK Government must play an active role in shaping behaviour and setting societal norms. Just like we have laws and rules governing personal interactions – we also need these for the online world, certainly in the context of online child safety.

Some countries are already ahead of the curve. The South Korean Government is actively addressing problems like online gaming addictions, which have a devastating impact on young peoples’ lives. In 2011, they introduced the ‘Cinderella Act’, preventing children under the age of 16 accessing gaming websites between certain hours.

Australia created the position of E-Safety Commissioner in 2015, to actively encourage “behavioural change, where a generation of Australian children act responsibly online”. And, in the US, there are discussions about the need for a legally enforceable “Digital Bill of Rights”, setting out clear expectations regarding online behaviour.

Whether you agree with these approaches or not – it is good to see some action.

Where there is bad behaviour, we also need to find ways to ensure that we are actively preventing harm – rather than simply acknowledging the damage being done. Too often, the solutions that the Government and social media companies champion involve tackling the problems after they occur. Taking down a compromising photo of a child, after it has been shared and seen by their whole network is not a solution. It is too late. The potentially catastrophic damage has been done.

One way to do this is to develop and apply new technologies, harnessing the spirit of innovation that created the internet in the first place.

The Government notes the potential of technologies such as artificial intelligence to make the internet safer, by identifying and blocking harmful content, before it is seen and the damage is done, which is positive. But they need to go one step further to actively support their development and facilitate collaboration and data sharing, making it possible for organisations like my own – SafeToNet – to harness this potential, and ultimately to safeguard children.

It is now time to broaden the debate in the UK, move away from good vs. bad, progress vs retreat and think bigger – after all without big thinking the internet and the wealth of opportunities it offers would not exist!