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Tech regulation and protecting children online; latest thinking from the UK

As part of a look forward at tech trends in 2020, as quoted below, The Guardian, referenced the Online Harms White Paper 2019, and how unlikely it is to result in regulation of tech given the lack of time for parliament and those who launched and commissioned it no longer being around.

It is a timely article given the Westminster eForum policy conference which also took place a couple of weeks ago on the topic of protecting children online - content regulation, age verification and the latest thinking on industry responsibility.

There was a great range of speakers at the Forum coming at the issue from all different angles, including representatives from ISPs, not-for-profits, government and academia.

The main topics were: what steps have been taken so far to protect children online, what is the latest thinking on reducing harmful content online and the practicalities of age verification. The three key things I took away were:

  1. The strong feeling that one size will not fit all and the need for differentiating conversations and targeted responses to meet the variety of challenges and needs of children accessing content online;
  2. The need to support parents and the wealth of materials and support being created (which, as a parent, I found very re-assuring) - for example, the work of the UK Safe Internet Centre and their upcoming Safer Internet Day 2020 (see here and the work of Internet Matters and the plethora of advice that is available from them online; and
  3. The issue of the formal regulation and what level is appropriate and necessary.

Reference was made to the recently amended Audiovisual Media Services Directive ("AVMS Directive"), which notably now regulates video-sharing platforms. In particular in this context it contains provisions requiring steps to be taken essentially to ensure that harmful content which may impair development of children is not available to minors. 

Reference was also made to the Online Harms White paper and the proposed statutory duty of care on intermediaries backed up by fines and its potential breadth including extra territorial enforcement, but noting that the debate is not yet over and it does not in any event really deal with the much debated issue of age verification.

With the ICO having last month published its Age Appropriate Design Code of Practice (the "Kids Code") it will, arguably, in future play a role in a content regulation. Interestingly though, the Information Commissioner has said the ICO does "not want to see an age-gated internet" but to protect children from within it.

In addition to the ICO wading in, the ASA has notably, this year, undertaken a review of some of the further protections for children, including the rules relating to advertising of HFSS  (high in fat, salt or sugar) foods (and these rules align with the latest changes to the AVMS which includes new provisions aimed at limiting exposure of children to harmful advertising e.g. HFSS foods and drinks).  The results, published by the ASA on 19 December, for 2018 show a significant decline in the extent of exposure of children to TV ads relating to HFSS foods but the same levels for alcohol and gambling ads as the previous year.

Accordingly, whilst it remains to be seen what will happen with the Online Harms White Paper, progress is being made and public debates like those facilitated by the Forum are an important part of making sure we keep protecting children online on the agenda.

Britain continues not to regulate tech. The online harms white paper, revealed in a blaze of publicity in the summer of 2019, has gone nowhere. The prime minister who commissioned it is out, as is the culture secretary who launched it.


uk, children, advertising, content regulation