Non-BSG reports

The Byron Review: What now for regulation of Web 2.0?

“If our children were leaving the house, or going to a swimming pool or going to play in the street, we would take all the care possible about their safety – is there proper policing, is there proper safety? When a child goes on to the computer and on to the internet or on to a video game we should be thinking in the same way.”

This was the response from the Prime Minister to the review published last week by psychologist Tanya Byron, setting out recommendations to ensure that children and young people are protected from inappropriate and harmful material on the internet and in video games.

The publication of this landmark review reflects a growing policy emphasis on how web 2.0 should be effectively regulated.

Whilst no one would disagree with the importance of ensuring child protection on the web and on video games, there is a vocal concern from industry that regulation should not inhibit innovation. The new media industry is one of the UK’s most vibrant and is constantly developing new services – the principal users of which are, in many cases, children and young people.

Byron’s report is a considered and ambitious response to this important issue. Whilst many of last week’s headlines focused on her recommendation to extend the range of age classification for video games, a closer read of the 200+ page report (for those of you with the stamina) also reveals an important proposal on how regulation of web 2.0 should be driven forward.

Her solution to this quandary is the establishment of a UK Council on Child Internet Safety to develop a child internet safety strategy, that will cover both illegal and legal (though potentially harmful or inappropriate) activity.

Built on the structure of the existing Home Secretary’s Task Force on Child Protection on the Internet, the Council will be co-chaired by the Home Office and the Department for Children, Schools and Families, involve other relevant government departments and be staffed by a cross-departmental secretariat. It will report directly to the Prime Minister.

The Council will also be supported by an expert advisory group and research sub-group and involve industry through working groups to deliver specific initiatives such as codes of practice.

Byron also strongly recommends that mechanisms should be established by the Council to effectively involve parents, children and young people.

At first glance, this seems like an eminently sensible solution. It draws the relevant stakeholders together and an over-arching strategy would arguably reduce confusion about the array of policy developments individual departments are currently pursuing in this area.

However, it is an ambitious task, and Byron’s recommended deadline of Spring 2009 for both the establishment of the Council and publication of the strategy is a challenging timescale.

It remains unclear at present who will drive forward the development of the strategy, and what regulatory issues it will cover. Elsewhere in her report, Byron throws down a gauntlet to industry to develop codes of practice on areas such as user generated content, improving access to parental control software and safe search features, and better regulation of online advertising.

This builds on the vast array of work the industry has already taken to set common standards on issues that are important to their consumer. One example of which is the Good Practice Principles on Audiovisual Content, which were facilitated by the Broadband Stakeholder group (www.audiovisualcontent.org).

However, looking forward, could further regulatory proposals emerge under the strategy as a whole? Would this regulation be developed under a self or co regulatory model? And who will police and enforce these standards?

It has to be recognised that Byron has done an admiral job in pulling a wide array of issues together in her review. When it comes down to a more detailed look at how child internet safety will be regulated, however, there is still a very long road to travel.

By Pamela Learmonth, Policy Manager, BSG