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Yesterday the Government launched a new open consultation on Internet Safety in the form of its new Internet Safety Strategy green paper and, whilst we half expected the paper to reiterate the usual approach of essentially blaming ISPs and technology companies (especially social media) for the ills of the Internet , the paper makes a refreshing read.

Don’t get us wrong, the Government is still keen to point out the growing role of tech companies,especially those in social media, with regards to filtering, monitoring and removing harmful content (which we completely agree with) but it has put much more focus on the need for ongoing education, support and a truly collaborative approach involving industry to formulate a successful strategy.

The key actions of the green paper are:

  • A new social media code of practice to see a joined-up approach to remove or address bullying, intimidating or humiliating online content
  • An industry-wide levy so social media companies and communication service providers contribute to raise awareness and counter internet harms​
  • An annual internet safety transparency report to show progress on addressing abusive and harmful content and conduct
  • And support for tech and digital startups to think safety first – ensuring that necessary safety features are built into apps and products from the very start

Gov.uk: Making Britain the safest place in the world to be online 

Not another levy…oh no wait, it’s actually not!

A key aspect of the paper that’s been picked up in some industry news reports is a new ‘levy’ on tech and social media companies,although who is actually targeted is still unclear. However, all is not as it seems. It’s not the usual ‘do as we say or we will fine you’ approach, it’s actually a voluntary system that would see the required tech companies financially support related charities and organisations to help raise awareness of online issues such as cyber-bullying, online abuse and inappropriate exposure to pornography, similar to the more recent ‘Drinkaware’ and ‘Gambleaware’ campaigns.

However, in further discussions Culture Secretary, Karen Bradley admitted she hasn’t ruled out full legislation if the voluntary approach is unsuccessful, stating: “I don’t rule out legislating if that’s what we need to do but I’m hoping to do it working with the companies.” She argues this approach will be “quicker, more effective, and gets a better result for everybody.”

We completely agree and hope that through a truly collaborative approach the industry and the Government can truly strive towards achieving the Government’s mission of ensuring Britain is the safest place in the world to be online. However, we would like more clarity around who the levy will essentially be targeting.

Acknowledging the importance of education

We were also impressed to see a real focus on the need for education from a very young age  and a commitment to ongoing support for parents. We have argued time and time again that as with most online issues, education is a key factor in the success of such policies and the earlier children are taught about online safety the better. The green paper states:

  • New compulsory school subjects – Relationship Education at primary and Relationship & Sex Education at secondary to provide online safety education
  • Social media safety advice – Government will encourage social media companies to offer safety advice and tools to parents and safety messages will be built into online platforms
  • Safety features highlighted – Government will work to raise awareness around the safety products and features that are available for parents.

The green paper states: “Today’s is the first generation of children who are learning about relationships and sex in an online world. Many of the experiences that are fundamental to growing up, like building friendships, testing parental boundaries and exploring sexuality, are complicated by growing up online. The risks are not new. Problems like pornography and bullying have challenged previous generations. But the Internet has amplified the risks. It is right that we take a fundamentally new approach to preparing our children to tackle these risks.”

Continuing the parent support and education led approach, the Government appears to have changed its mind somewhat about the need for mandatory network-level internet filtering, stating “The current industry-led self-regulatory approach on parental control filters works well, as it encourages parents to think about online safety, but applies filters where they are not engaged. Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are best placed to know what their customers want, and to deliver flexible parental control tools that keep up-to-date with rapid changes in technology.

A mandatory approach to filters risks replacing current, user-friendly tools (filtering across a variety of categories of content, but built on a common set of core categories) with a more inflexible ‘top down’ regulatory system.”

The consultation will run until the 7th December and we hope the Government successfully builds on the outlined strategy which shows true promise and genuine attempts at collaboration with industry and the education services to develop a strong strategy towards online safety for all. We look forward to the results, and particularly clarity around what sort of “provider” will be liable to pay the levy. The paper isn’t at all clear on who the target is; if CPs have to pay the Government to fund consumer adverts, then prices for business connections in the channel are inevitably set to rise.

Have your say!

Do you agree that this a positive approach to Internet safety or do you think the Government could go further? Do you think they are correct to focus on education and industry collaboration or not? Have your say with a comment below.

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