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Lords call on ISPs, government to do more to safeguard children online

A House of Lords Select Committee report on online safety has called for internet service providers and the government to do more to protect the interests of children using the internet

The House of Lords Select Committee on Communications has acknowledged the efforts by leading internet service providers (ISPs) to provide child-friendly filters and help make web browsing safer, but called for more to be done to improve online safety, particularly when it comes to children’s use of web services.

In a newly published report, Growing up with the internet, the committee made a series of recommendations, calling on the government to show top-down, sustained leadership on the issues, for an ambitious programme of digital literacy, minimum standards for internet services and content providers, and a commitment to child-centred design.

The lords cited the government’s duty to uphold the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which requires Westminster to account for the best interests of children as a primary consideration in any action that concerns them under the convention, as well as noting that the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) will clarify the extension to children of rights such as the right to be forgotten.

The report urged the government to do more to imbue the skills and knowledge needed to critically engage with the internet from a young age: “It is no longer sufficient to teach digital skills in specialist computer science classes,” wrote the report’s authors. “We recommend that digital literacy sit alongside reading, writing and mathematics as the fourth pillar of a child’s education.”

It also recommended the creation of a permanent Children’s Digital Champion in the Cabinet Office, with the power to seek coordinated and sustained action across government departments.

For industry, the committee said there should be minimum standards of child-friendly design, filtering, privacy, data collection and response mechanisms for complaints, built into systems early on so that the needs of young people are considered preventatively, rather than in reaction to a problem.

Welcoming the commitment by the four largest ISPs to provide filtering, the committee added that it was necessary for all ISPs do the same, and that there should again be minimum standards built into these filters.

UK a world leader in online safety

Responding to the report’s recommendations, James Blessing, chair of the Internet Service Providers Association (ISPA), said the current self-regulatory regime had already led to the UK being a world leader in online safety, and the ISPA therefore disagreed with some of the report’s conclusions.

Blessing pointed out that up to to 95% of consumer customers already had free access to a parental control filter, and added that images of child sex abuse hosted in the UK have been virtually eradicated thanks to the work of the Internet Watch Foundation and other bodies.

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However, the ISPA also recognised that filtering alone was only one part of a solution that had to include digital literacy and informed policymaking, and therefore the association backed the Lords’ recommendations for the government.

“The internet industry has long been committed to keeping children safe online and the UK is regarded as a world leader in this area,” said Blessing.

“We believe the most effective response is a joint approach based on education, raising awareness and technical tools. The internet industry is constantly reviewing how it helps customers manage online safety and so looks forward to being part of the discussions to inform the new Internet Safety Strategy.”

In compiling its report, the committee received input from numerous industry bodies, ISPs, agencies, charities and children themselves.

Of particular note was input from child psychologists who pointed out that it was necessary to take a very granular approach to how young people develop their sense of identity and perceive the world around them at different ages. For example, a five-year old will naturally have a very different perspective on the online world than a 15-year old.

Another respondent called for the term “digital natives” to be eliminated from public discourse because it had a tendency to disempower parents – and perhaps policymakers – and make them feel disengaged from aspects of technology that children have keenly adopted, therefore resigning themselves to the idea that tackling the problems of cyber bullying, access to pornography and so on, is out of their control.

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