In my last, pre-FOSI, post about this social media meltdown I told you I’d report back about what people would say about it at the conference. But there was actually very little said – only, rightfully, sadness for all the tech workers who’ve been laid off (my post has numbers). In his closing remarks, FOSI CEO Stephen Balkam even asked the audience to let him know of any job openings they’re aware of, because some workers face deportation if they don’t find new jobs.
As for the rest of the day, besides a delightful session featuring father-and-daughter TikTok creators talking about co-parenting and important panels on children’s rights and media literacy, the two big headliners were the fresh research on age verification presented first thing in the morning and the unveiling of a Global Online Safety Regulators Network at the end of the day.
Let’s zoom in on that last one, an unprecedented development for child online safety. With founding members Julie Inman-Grant, Australia’s eSafety Commissioner, Melanie Dawes, CEO of Ofcom in the UK, Mary Motofaga, Online Safety Commissioner of Fiji, and Celene Craig, CEO of Ireland’s Broadcasting Authority, it has great potential for good. It also faces significant challenges, because – as we know from long experience and yesterday heard from the experts on children’s rights – getting child protection right and in balance with child participation and privacy rights, is really difficult and requires as much respect for children as for regulators’ adult constituents.
Some super-preliminary thoughts
A regulatory network makes so much sense, because the Internet is still pretty global (though splintering) and the companies that host and provide so much of it are themselves global, so why reinvent the wheel, country by country, and how could we not have consistency and symmetry? But symmetry suggests only two sides, and there are many sources of user care. So…
Young users’ reality. Let’s hope that, while regulator members “share information, best practice, experience, expertise,” they share research on child online safety and wellbeing as it emerges, on an ongoing basis. The network’s Terms of Reference don’t specifically stipulate this, but maybe the reference on p. 5 to academics and researchers as potential “guests” suggests this is possible? It’s exciting to think of the potential, here, because, if the member regulators do make it a principle to ground their work in research, this could become a “social norm” – a positive form of “peer pressure” – for policymakers and governments, possibly all who care about children.
Seeing the network’s not enough. Another sincere hope is that the members acknowledge and act on the understanding that regulation is only one tool in the child online safety toolkit, one point in the prevention-intervention spectrum of care that includes consumer education, safety features in products, effective abuse reporting systems, adequate investment in content moderation, cross-industry remedies such as the Tech Coalition, cross-sector coordination by government, industry and advocacy, and the missing piece in user care in so many countries, including my own: independent, third-party Internet help for Internet users. Australia’s member, the eSafety Commissioner’s Office, includes this vital piece of the solution set, but in some countries Internet help is done best by an independent NGO, such as SaferNet in Brazil and a number of helplines in Europe. The US doesn’t have one, though a proof of concept was piloted here in the last decade. So are the members willing to work with other sources of care, not just each other? Can humility be baked in?
Youth consultation. The founding members all represent countries that have ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and its General Comment 25 on children and young people’s digital rights. One founding member, the eSafety Commissioner’s Office this year established a youth advisory of Australians aged 13-24. I’m sure other members make a practice of consulting with youth, but shouldn’t this be a fundamental practice of the network itself? Its Terms of Reference make one reference to the Convention; its Strategic Plan for 2022-’23 makes “contributing to global dialogue on online safety issues with evidence-based advocacy for regulation, grounded in human rights and ethical frameworks” a strategic priority.” That is outstanding. However, neither document makes explicit reference to consulting with young people in keeping with Article 12 of the Convention. This body has the opportunity to model compliance with this fundamental right of people under 18 for governments all over the world.
Networked regulation or “super regulation”? Maybe just maybe, a network like this will preclude the need for what University of Toronto law professor Gillian Hadfield called “super regulation” – competitive independent regulators that support government and are appointed by government to act in the public interest (more about that here). But I’m not sure – unless the network has an education component, a division that educates potential member regulators about the research on users and user care as well as on effective regulation and includes assessment, a knowledge base and ongoing certification that members are adhering to the network’s standards.
So what am I missing? I welcome your thoughts below or in LinkedIn. And the regulators themselves would quite understandably say, “Just give us time.”
In any case, this new global regulator network is an exciting development, especially if it can maintain the high ground from which it launched. It has its work cut out for it as a vital piece of the complex puzzle of safety for users of our so very social, participatory and global media environment.
- Other parts of the child online safety prescription from Dr. Ranjana Kumari of India’s Center for Social Research and me (see the bulleted list at the bottom of it)
- Lessons learned from the US-based pilot of an Internet helpline
- The Young & Resilient Research Center in Australia conducted the youth consultation part of General Comment 25 in 27 countries. Here‘s there report on what young people said about their digital rights. [General Comment 25, which was adopted by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child in 2021 (more here), which gave the Convention on the Rights of the Child its much-needed digital update.]
- More on the “middle layer” of Internet user care, including “super regulation,” per University of Toronto Prof. Gillian Hadfield
- Another piece of the online safety puzzle is educating the Internet industry, from startups to established companies, and their investors on Safety by Design, another project of the eSafety Commissioner’s Office.