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Tech Shock: Caroline Dinenage on the Online Safety Bill

In this week’s episode of the Tech Shock podcast, Caroline Dinenage, MP for Gosport, and former minister at the DCMS discusses the Online Safety Bill and her hopes for the internet of the future. 

Tackling the pitfalls of the online world

The Covid-19 pandemic pushed us to think more carefully about life online. “During lockdown, Google became the new classroom, Zoom became the new boardroom and sites like Netflix became the new cinemas,” Dinenage says. 

The internet proved an invaluable resource – but spending so much time online reminded us that it isn’t always a safe place. 

“The Online Safety Bill attempts to tackle some of the pitfalls,” she says, while suggesting that it’s unfair to ask individuals to self-regulate in the controlling environment of online spaces. Instead, she suggests, government regulation must ensure companies curtail harms. 

Why are parents not mentioned?

Children are at the forefront of this bill. Parents, though, are noticeably absent. This is a strange omission given that parents are perhaps the number one factor in improving outcomes for children. 

Dinenage argues that the omission is not intended to exclude parents, but reflects the Bill’s attempts to change structures rather than respond to individual concerns. “This legislation is not about individual harms and individual people, but about systems and processes.” 

Given the speed at which the internet evolves, a focus on individual harms could mean missing emerging risks: “The legislation has to be future proof.” 

Dinenage recognises the need to keep parents involved in their children’s digital lives and says they should be more involved in the proposed digital literacy strategy, which is seen as an important adjunct to the legislation. 

Why has commercial pornography been omitted?

Commercial pornography is also missing from the Bill, to the fury of many campaigners for children – and an area of concern not only to parents but also to many politicians. 

Dinenage says this is a consequence of the Bill’s focus on user-generated content: “Commercial pornography sites come into scope where they have a user-generated aspect. I'm worried about very young children stumbling across unpleasant content online, rather than necessarily going looking for it.” 

Balancing harm and freedom of speech

Concerns have also been raised about whether the Bill can balance safety against freedom of speech and opinion. 

Dinenage explains that the Bill won’t be stopping anyone from expressing opinions – even if such opinions are generally considered to be harmful. Instead, the focus will be on targeting engagement driven algorithms that promote the widespread sharing of harmful or hateful content. “Once you get hooked into the algorithm it’s amazing how quickly you’re suddenly in an echo chamber,” she says. 

No tech company will be able to arbitrarily ban users, and the discussion of free-speech versus safety is something of a false binary. “The internet is big enough for there to be plenty of opposing opinions out there whilst still allowing these protections to be in place,” she adds. 

What might the future look like? 

Tackling online safety is a mammoth task, but Dinenage is hopeful that the Bill will be a huge step forward. Whilst it won’t tackle every possible problem, it will pave the way for more specific legal measures around online safety in the future. 

“This bill is the foundation of a world to come, a world in which we are able to have freedom of speech and expression but not all the hatred and unpleasantness that has crept into the online world,” she says. 

There is real promise the Bill will respond to many of the issues children and young people face online. It is unfortunate the parents have been overlooked and that the links between gaming and gambling have not been addressed, and disappointing that there has been no effort made to stop children from accessing commercial pornography – but it is, as Dinenage says, a definite starting point.

Listen to episode 12, season 2 of Tech Shock: Caroline Dinenage

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