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What we think: The Government’s Internet Safety Strategy green paper

Susie Hargreaves OBE, IWF CEO

Susie Hargreaves

Last week the media focussed on the Government’s new Internet Safety Strategy green paper. The Independent says “the government has unveiled sweeping plans to ‘regulate the internet”, while the Metro’s headline reads: “Facebook and Twitter to be forced to pay tax for ‘undeniable suffering’ inflicted on users”.

In this blog I’ll be looking behind the headlines to talk about what the plans really mean. As part of the UK Safer Internet Centre, our statistic which found 64% of 13-17-year-olds have seen people posting offensive images or videos was used in the paper, along with our statement welcoming the plans as part of the UK Safer Internet Centre (UKSIC).

However this blog aims to outline which parts of the green paper are relevant to the work of the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) specifically, and how the new strategy will affect our Members in the internet industry. We also want to determine how the government’s new strategy can be used to help us continue with our vital work, and how it can help children who are victims of online sexual abuse material.

Key principles

The paper says its objectives are underpinned by three key principles:

  • What is unacceptable offline should be unacceptable online;
  • All users should be empowered to manage online risks and stay safe;
  • Technology companies have a responsibility to their users.

Strategic Response

Remodelling the UK Council for Child Internet Safety (UKCCIS)

The Government recognises the work of UKCCIS and wants to align it more closely with the Internet Safety Strategy. Renaming it the UK Council for Internet Safety (UKCIS), the Government is proposing broadening the council’s remit to adults, having a smaller and higher-profile executive board, reconsidering the role of the working groups to ensure that there is flexibility to respond to new issues, looking into an independent panel or working group to discuss the social media levy, and reviewing available online safety resources. As a current Executive Board Member of UKCCIS, I am really keen to ensure that we can continue to be part of this important multi-stakeholder group working together to ensure we make the internet as safe as possible.

Working with social media and industry

The Government recognises that it alone cannot protect citizens from online harms and aims to work with industry to make online environments safer for all users. This is a model the IWF has used for over 20 years and we can credit our international success to this.

Proposed safety initiatives:

Social Media Code of Practice: Introduced in the Digital Economy Act of 2017, the Code of Practice will be voluntary for industry and aims to tackle bullying, harassment, intimidating and humiliating behaviour. It will be a standard by which industry can demonstrate their commitment to improving online safety. It will also focus on communication between industry and consumers covering guidelines and T+Cs. Regarding our area of work, last year we found that less than 1% of child sexual abuse images and videos are found on social networks, and we also find that our social network Members are quick to react if we notify them of this content.

Social Media Levy: The government stresses this is not a tax on social media companies but is being introduced to combat online harms, as not enough is being done to prevent this. At the moment the Government is not proposing underpinning the levy in legislation but may do in the future. It is keen not to stifle growth and innovation. 

Transparency: The Government believes that regular annual reporting will help to set baselines against which to benchmark companies. The consultation seeks feedback on the metrics used in the benchmarking exercise.

The paper also focusses on advertising, online games, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which includes the right to be forgotten and making sure children are protected and know their rights when it comes to data. We strive to be as transparent as possible in our work to remove child sexual abuse imagery and we’re looking at how we can do more in this area, particularly when it comes to helping people to understand more about what we do, how we do it, and the positive effect it has.

Improving technology for all users: The IWF’s Fred Langford chairs the current UKCCIS technical working group, which is attended by many IWF Members and other stakeholders. The individuals who make up this group comprise some of the nation’s (and perhaps world’s) technical leaders who are thinking about online safety. The government wants to build on this group’s recommendations to develop and share new ideas where businesses can communicate and challenge each other.

In the green paper the Rt Hon Karen Bradley MP writes that the strategy will help “protect the vulnerable” and give people confidence to use the internet without fear.

While this paper’s purpose is not to cover the topics of extremism, terrorist use of the internet and child sexual exploitation, the IWF is obviously supportive of the Government’s approach to protecting vulnerable people and we are leading the way globally in combatting child sexual abuse images online. We are keen that Government continues to recognise our work in this area and are keen to discuss the potential of how the social media levy can assist us in our work.

Safety first

How can technology improve online safety for all users? The Government wants to provide small start-ups and app developers with more information to ensure that they can “think safety first”. This sounds like a great initiative as our analysts, who work on the front-line of internet abuse, see all too often what happens when new, innovative companies forget to build in safety measures. The Government referenced Google and Apple, which are both IWF members, for their good work on family classifications for apps and want to work with them to improve the offer.

Supporting children, families and carers

The government also wants to focus on schools and the role that they play in protecting children from the harms of sexting, cyber bullying and online abuse. The strategy also talks about early years intervention, schools, teachers, parents and guardians having a more informed role, of which the good work of UKSIC and South West Grid for Learning are mentioned on page 28/29 of the strategy. Our Game On campaign, educating young people through sport, is relevant for this focus. Not only is Game On compatible with the Government’s personal, social, health and education (PSHE), and relationship and sex education (RSE) requirement in English secondary schools, it has been nominated for three awards.

Our stand on censorship

There are always ongoing debates in parliament, the media and society in general about harmful and inappropriate internet content – and to what level censorship is positive or negative.

Our first priority is always the safety of the children we see in sexual abuse material. The way we enable companies to filter internet pages is designed to cause no blocking of legal content. Most of the time, the internet user has no idea of the horrific content they would have stumbled upon if we were not for our work at the IWF. Our remit, when it comes to enabling the blocking of URLs (web addresses), only goes as far as child sexual abuse images and videos.

The debate on what constitutes hate, trolling, online abuse and children’s safety when using the internet, and what should be removed from the internet or not is a discussion for the government, the internet industry and organisations dedicated to these topics. Meanwhile, we will support our Members, which include Google, Facebook, Twitter and many ISPs, as they undergo these changes.

Report here