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Kids online: Parents need to regulate, says Ofcom

Take some responsibility, would you?

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Parents should take greater responsibility for what their children get up to on the internet, according to Jeremy Olivier, Ofcom’s Head of Convergent Media.

Richard Mollett, Director of Public Affairs for the BPI went a step further. He said: “When it comes to copyright issues, parents may no longer be able to use ignorance as an excuse.”

Both were speaking today at “Taming the Wild Web?”, a keynote forum hosted in Whitehall by Westminster eForums, and bringing together the great and the good from the internet world to discuss issues such as how online content can be regulated, whether all illegal activities should be regulated equally, and who should act as regulator.

Are we now in the “Wild West”, which was eventually tamed; or, as another panellist put it, in a “digital Somalia” – which is presumably beyond the law?

The majority of panellists, with some notable exceptions, appeared to be in broad agreement. Hard-hitting laws to clamp down on the internet would be a mistake or as as Alun Michael, MP put it, quoting from Gibbon: “Laws rarely prevent what they forbid.” Too tight a framework for internet regulation would most likely have unintended consequences and inflict irreparable harm on what would otherwise be a key growth industry throughout the next few decades.

As an example of such an unintended consequence, Jeremy Olivier warned against making ISPs too tightly responsible for site content. He explained: "A disbenefit of this approach would be that it provides an incentive for ISPs to censor everything, which would lead to enormous costs in terms of lost opportunities and lost innovation.”

Otherwise, speakers tended to agree with the proposition that the net was not one thing, but many, with many different audiences doing many different things. The right approach for one combination might not be suitable for another. Ben Allgrove, a Senior Associate at lawyers Baker Mackenzie drew a contrast between making child porn illegal and regulating IPR issues. In the first instance, he said: “We are dealing with criminal law, there are no counter arguments, and a broad international consensus exists - when it comes to rights in respect of IP, we are dealing with civil law, there is no consensus, and many conflicting points of view.”

Flexibility by self-regulatory bodies was deemed a good thing. ISPs were more than happy to intervene in respect of illegal content – but matters of harm and taste were not issues they should be concerned with. None of the above is likely to give much comfort to Culture Minister, Andy Burnham, whose public pronouncements to the effect that the time to regulate is nigh appear increasingly out of step with the industry as a whole.

What then of parents? The Byron Review, which provided a useful framework for looking at internet regulation, talked about different emphases for different stakeholders. While ISPs might be tasked with being more careful in respect of content provision, there was a role too for parents and educators: parents need the skills and knowledge to regulate content in their own home.

This was a theme that several speakers returned to. One or two, echoing government moves to develop a new legal framework to police possession of various forms of illicit material – most notably, porn and terror-related – felt that parents need to be made more (legally) liable for what took place on their PCs.

Most speakers took a softer line. Professor Sonia Livingstone of the London School of Economics highlighted the difficulties in attempting to give control back to parents. Government should seek to empower parents: but they could not rely on them.

The day’s main dissent came from Derek Wyatt, Co-Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Communications. He followed a short history of internet development with the contention that international regulation was coming: that there was growing government appetite for a body that would carry out this task, and that the best model for such regulation was our very own Ofcom.

His roadmap to a cleaner, safer internet world included a Communications Act in 2011, giving Ofcom a lead role in UK regulation; a creation of a world charter, to be presented by the UK to the G8 (or possibly G20) in the same year; and a gradual winning of hearts and minds - state by state, issue by issue - over the ensuing decade.

While such a “big government” approach was not in tune with the majority of contributions, Alun Michael did warn that if the industry failed to show willing in the matter of (self-)regulation, they should be wary of a Dangerous Computers Act being imposed on them.

The one truly dissenting voice came from the audience. Miranda Suit of Mediamarch asked the panel (twice) whether more draconian legislation, akin to that in place in China, was not required to protect children and young men from porn.

Er, no.

However, she had more success in splitting the panel with a slightly trickier question. She asked: Was there a single reason they could advance as to why all new PCs should not come with optional porn filters on as default? Answers on a postcard, please... ®

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