Self regulation: Lessons from the UK

John Carr, Internet safety adviser to the British government, explains that it is possible for government, industry and safety groups to work together for the benefit of children.

By John Carr

 There probably isn’t a country in the world that does not have laws, often very well developed and comprehensive laws, which seek to provide a framework for the traditional media. In the democracies, typically, the media laws will be essentially regulatory in nature, based on recognition of the huge power and potential of the media to influence a country’s political, social, cultural and economic life.

The Internet unquestionably has become part of the wider media mix, but it also has several unique char that make conventional regulatory models or legal frameworks more or less redundant. One of those characteristics is the technical complexity and transnational nature of this medium. The second is the speed at which things can, and often do, change.

Then there’s the ubiquity factor. TV, newspapers, film, telephones, the postal service and radio seem positively niche when set against the power and breadth of the Internet to do almost all those things and more, and almost everyone has the Net. One hundred percent of schools in the UK are wired up, and 89% of households with children of school age have Internet access at home. The Net is now part of our critical national infrastructure.

The impact of the Internet on the arts, on politics, on the business of gathering and distributing news, and on the citizen’s relationship with government, retail, the travel industry, etc. has been huge and broadly recognized as being progressive. Yet the arrival of the Internet as a mass consumer product has not been an unalloyed triumph. It has facilitated a number of highly undesirable phenomena that effect that most precious, and most politically sensitive, of groups: children.

The dangers to children that the Net has facilitated or created has meant it is inevitable that governments will take a close interest. But how are politicians and civil servants to perform their public duties in this area on our behalf? As we have seen, the old ways are no good any more. That’s why in the UK we have pioneered our own approach. We call it “self regulation.”

For these issues, the lead ministry in the UK is the Home Office, headed up by the Home Secretary, one of the most senior cabinet positions in the UK government. Back in 2001 the Home Secretary created the Internet Task Force on Child Protection, which brings together all the key parts of central government, all the key parts of the police and law enforcement agencies and, crucially, the leading industry players and the leading child advocacy groups.

Before the Task Force was created, child advocacy groups would generally only meet with the industry in TV and radio studios, or in the columns of newspapers, typically following yet another terrible online incident involving a child. This tended to push politicians and the police into difficult positions as well. All in all, it was no way to make policy.The Task Force changed that. The mere fact that we all now sit in a room together means we have to talk to each other, and these discussions have grown a degree of trust and – above all – a much greater level of understanding of where each of us is coming from. That has hugely helped, and speeded up, the policymaking process.

The Task Force has developed several codes of practice relating to young people’s use of the Internet which the industry has embraced. It has produced some excellent educational materials that are being used in schools and by parents and children alike. Whereas in 1997 around 18% of all the child pornography being found on the Net in Britain was also being published from within Britain, by 2006 this had fallen to less than 0.4%. For several years now no UK-based Internet service provider has provided access to any Usenet Newsgroup that regularly contains or advertises the availability of child pornography. Our leading providers now routinely block access to all child pornography Web sites, irrespective of where the server housing them is located. All this is a product of self-regulation.

Has self-regulation solved every problem? No. But it’s still working, and we have avoided the need for legislative intervention, save on non-contentious issues where, for technical reasons, a change in the law was necessary and widely supported.

Not every country has the sort of political culture and traditions that would support self-regulation along UK lines but, to quote that great Anglo-American Winston Churchill, “To jaw jaw is better than to war war.”

John Carr is Internet safety adviser to the British government and the NCH children’s charity.

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