The Online Wild West
by Tom Griesbach, Consultant

There was a time, not very long ago, when any regulatory tinkering with the Internet was considered an affront to liberty and free speech. That was well before concerns emerged about social media addiction, its role in fuelling mental health disorders, and its impact on young people.

Recent Savanta ComRes surveys for UKActive and NSPCC shed some valuable insight on the perils of the online world:

  1. On average, UK adults spend around 1.7 hours a day using social media, compared to roughly 1.5 hours of physical activity a week.
  2. Most adults regard Facebook (70%), Instagram (59%), Snapchat (58%) and Twitter (56%) as unsafe for children aged 11-12. Around half say the same for children aged 13-18 (Facebook 55%, Instagram 46%, Snapchat 47%, Twitter 44%).
  3. Three in five (60%) adults do not believe that social networks protect children using their platforms from inappropriate content, such as self-harm, violent or suicidal themes.
  4. Accordingly, nine in ten (89%) would support statutory regulation of social networks to make them legally responsible for keeping children safe on their platforms, with two thirds (65%) saying they “strongly” support this.

Having trodden for the past few years a precarious path between freedom of speech and user protection through self-governance, the social network behemoths have largely operated outside content constraints - with some MPs comparing their behaviour to that of “an online wild west.”

But reality, and regulation, are rapidly catching them up. Even Mark Zuckerberg himself last week called for new laws to govern harmful content online, among other things.

And for the UK Government, it seems the penny has finally dropped. Just this morning, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) has proposed in an Online Harms White Paper the establishment of an independent watchdog whose role is to outline a much-needed “code of practice” online – and more importantly, have the power enforce it. With the ability to fine, name-shame or even block sites that fail to adhere to its rules, it appears that the first baby steps towards a safer online world have been finally taken…

But, given the political maelstrom, will these proposals ever see the light of day?

[Full results of Savanta ComRes surveys for UKActive and NSPCC here.]