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Tech Shock: William Perrin on the Online Safety Bill

In this week’s episode of the Tech Shock podcast, Vicki and Geraldine speak to William Perrin, Trustee of Carnegie UK, about the behind-the-scenes shaping of the Online Safety Bill, how it could change, and why there’s been so little mention of parents.  

What is the purpose of the Online Safety Bill?

The Online Safety Bill aims to make the UK the safest place in the world to go online, but there are certain important topics that it doesn’t cover, such as gaming and commercial pornography. Parent Zone has responded to the first draft of the Bill, which is now being scrutinised by a committee of MPs and peers. An amended version is expected next year. 

Perrin says we need to take the current draft Bill as an “opening shot from the government”, and there are likely to be many amendments before it is finalised. The Bill focuses on search and user-generated content, although he believes that some gaming will be included because it involves user-to-user communication.

With his collaborator, Professor Lorna Woods of Essex University, Perrin has led the call for regulation based on a “duty of care”. 

Just as the owner of a public space is required by Health and Safety legislation to make sure visitors are safe, online businesses would have to make sure they are set up in users’ interests. In other words, the focus should not be on individual items of content, but on wider systems to make the space as good and usable as possible.  

Individual vs. societal harm

Part of the vagueness of the Online Safety Bill is that we don’t yet have a clear understanding of what we mean by harm – because this is for the regulator, Ofcom, to lay out in due course.

The Bill focuses on harms to individuals rather than societal harms; Perrin, Vicki and Geraldine discuss whether this distinction really makes sense. 

“The emphasis on harms to individuals is partly ideology, and partly practicality, because they are much easier to define,” says Perrin. “But we’ve moved from the early internet that was about free speech and the rights of the individual – because we can now see what happens when you have hundreds of thousands of people asserting individual rights.”

We are now seeing a shift into a “public health era” of the internet, he says, rather than one based on libertarian ideas of a free-for-all with zero government interference.

How to regulate

Perrin argues that the risk assessment model required by the duty of care is a familiar idea: “So many dangerous industries are regulated on the basis of a risk assessment regime that that model can be deployed quite easily.”

The detail of what constitutes reportable risk will be down to Ofcom. If the system works properly (which of course is a big if) tech platforms and services will be required to do horizon-scanning to identify and report upcoming threats.

“Ordinary sensibilities”

Part of navigating this shift into a public health era is considering how to balance this distinction between individual and societal harms. The Tech Shock team discusses whether the Bill’s frequently-used phrase “a child of ordinary sensibilities” really makes sense. 

Geraldine points out that children who are vulnerable offline are often more vulnerable online. On the other hand, if the Bill were to focus on the most vulnerable, there would be a danger of legislating for everyone based on a minority of ‘hard cases’.

“If you have an effective regulator they should be able to say when, for this segment of an audience, a significant harm arises,” Perrin says. “A platform should know what its audience is and what their tolerance for harm is and roughly where the bar should be.”

The role of parenting

Parents aren’t mentioned in the Bill, even though we know that they are the most significant determinant of children’s outcomes after poverty. Vicki argues that this seems to be a waste of an invaluable resource. “In discussions about the internet, individual rights are always being asserted, and the role of parents is overlooked,” says Perrin. 

Parents are well-equipped to support children in their lives online, and leaving them without any additional powers is a wasted opportunity at a critical moment. 

As a clearer idea emerges of who the Bill is for and how it will be implemented, we hope that support for parents will be included, as they have a vital role to play in children’s online lives.

Listen to episode 8 of Tech Shock, season 2: “William Perrin”

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