for anyone who has doubts about the magnitude of the challenge to make the internet a safer place, especially for children, a new Channel 4 Shipping program on the metavers she will probably drive out. The host, Yinka Bokinni, introduces herself as a “tech lover” before donning an Oculus headset and entering the network of 3D virtual worlds that Meta’s Mark Zuckerberg describes as the “next frontier” of the internet. What does she find there? leaves her visibly shocked. Sexual harassment, rape threats, and racial slurs are ubiquitous, and childhood offers little protection (one of the avatars she takes on is 13). Even pedophilia is allowed freely.
Back to the real world, that of the British government online security account is getting closer and closer to becoming law. It had its second reading in the House of Commons this month and has broad support, although Labor is likely to try to change provisions granting powers to the Secretary of State who must remain with regulator Ofcom. Meanwhile, an agreement was signed in Brussels that brought the implementation of a Digital Services Act closer reached at the weekend† It will ban certain types of targeted advertising, pave the way for fines of up to 6% of global revenue, and charge companies to pay for compliance.
Europe is at the forefront of internet regulation, developing standards and setting requirements for companies that can later be taken over and adapted elsewhere. California lawmakers have already introduced measures based on the UK age-appropriate draft code – an attempt to retrofit platforms with the protective features that should have been there in the first place. In a speech last week, Barack Obama warned of the growing… threat to democracy of online disinformation, and called for greater accountability.
But the rise of the metaverse concept, in which Meta (formerly Facebook) invested $10 billion last year, and the horrific scenes in virtual space games as highlighted by Dispatches, arouse a disturbing prospect. This is that as policymakers scramble to contain the chaos on existing platforms, the billionaires who control the digital media are already making a leap forward, ignoring – in their ingrained habit – the new dangers that new forms of making money online are sure to. to create. Meta’s Quest was the most downloaded app on Christmas Day in 2021, with 8 million Oculus headsets sold to date.
Policy makers and campaigners deserve credit. The review of the UK bill has already led to changes, including the long-awaited introduction of mandatory age verification for porn sites and the promise of clearer protections for the press. But there is no room for complacency. Women’s groups believe that measures aimed at tackling online sexual abuse: not enough, despite the creation of a new cyberflashing offense. And there are concerns about how the bill will define “legal but harmful speech”, against which major platforms should protect adults. Mumsnet fears that user discussions on topics such as eating disorders can violate rules aimed at blocking harmful content.
MEPs from all parties should address these issues and encourage wider debate. The initially lax regulatory approach to social media was a mistake. Assumptions of standard good behavior by users have proved grossly over-optimistic. Companies should never have launched products aimed at children without first proving they were safe. If ministers de NSPCC’s proposal of criminal penalties for tech company bosses who allow it serious crimes against children to commit to their platforms, they need to explain why. As the charity points out, the financial industry has them.
The power, wealth and influence of the tech sector is immense. But governments are not weaklings. Online security should never be an afterthought.