Is Statutory Internet Regulation inevitable?

In his introductory comments to the Parliament and the Internet Conference today, Ed Richards seemed to think that the transition of Ofcom from a Broadcast to an Internet regulator was inevitable, as content and viewing habits moved across, albeit it raised many questions of practicality.

He also spoke of the need to protect existing players as their traditional business models crumbled, while saying that legislation was needed to break the current spectrum logjam.

That appeared to me to be three about-turns from what Parliament agreed during the debates over the legislation to create Ofcom as a light touch, consumer protection regulator which would neither regulate the Internet nor try to predict the future and also inherited a clear work-in-progress agenda from the Radio Communications Agency. 

Later in the conference, Derek Wyatt MP summarised the main conclusions from the apComms report “Can we keep our hands off the Net?” – also all to do with self-regulation rather than government interference. There was a good debate over what was meant by a Universal Service Obligation of 2 megs and Stephen Timms confirmed that it meant what it said. That was felt to be really good news by those whose “up to 8 megs” service fell to under a meg when the children came on line after school.

The day was, however, stolen by the delegates from the childrens IGF organised by Childnet. They went straight for the difficult issues that we were all avoiding: wanting open access with safety. They pointed out that our technology dependent, safety-first, “if in doubt block it”, censored feeds to schools got in the way of their supervised project work – because they could not access main stream sources, let alone any of the blogged commentaries on them. But they also wanted effective facilities to help guard against 24 by 7 on-line bullying. 

Less than 25% of the children and almost none of their teachers or parents were even aware of the safety and privacy features on the social networks they used, let alone how to use them. Nor were they aware of much of the educational material on offer to help them. Those designing the features clearly had not consulted their customers. Those producing the material were clearly not using the most effective channels to market.

Over the course of day it became apparent that it was the adults, not the children who were inhabiting fantasy island. 

One of the adults who showed that she fully understood what she was doing and why, was Martha Lane Fox. She took the user-centric view that is all too often missing from debates over technology policy, dominated as they usually are by a mix of vested interests and technology enthusiasts. 

IT experts busy designing systems to impress other experts have to remember that it is their fault, not the users’, when the latter do not know how to use the wonderful features on offer or the support and safety facilities on offer,

Perhaps Ed Richards was right. Perhaps regulation is inevitable. But if so, the ICT will have brought the U-Turn on itself.

My provisional conclusion was that no-one over the age of 13 or under the age of 63 should be allowed to vote on any legislation to regulate the Internet. It should be left to children and their grandparents to decide. 

I may, of course, temper that conclusion tomorrow morning – but certainly I heard nothing that convinced me that those between the ages of 20 and 60 know enough to make regulatory decisions that will not turn out to have been counter-productive before today’s 13 year olds get to University.