For anyone harboring doubts about the scale of the challenge involved in trying to make the internet safer, above all for children, a new Channel 4 Dispatches program on the metaverse is likely to dispel them. The presenter, Yinka Bokinni, introduces herself as a “tech lover” before donning an Oculus headset and heading off into the network of 3D virtual worlds that Meta’s Mark Zuckerberg describes as the internet’s “next frontier”. What she finds there leaves her visibly shaken. Sexual harassment, rape threats and racist epithets are ubiquitous, and childhood offers little protection (one of the avatars she adopts is 13). Even paedophilia is freely admitted to.
Back in the real world, the UK government’s online safety bill is moving closer to becoming law. It had its second reading in the House of Commons this month and has a broad base of support, although Labor is likely to try to amend provisions that grant powers to the secretary of state that should stay with the regulator, Ofcom. Meanwhile in Brussels, an agreement bringing closer the enactment of a Digital Services Act was reached at the weekend. It will ban some kinds of targeted advertising, pave the way for fines of up to 6% of global turnover and charge companies fees to pay for compliance.
Europe is leading the way on internet regulation, developing standards and making demands of businesses that may, down the line, be adopted and adapted elsewhere. Already, California legislators have introduced measures based on the UK’s age appropriate design 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 from online disinformation, and called for more accountability.
But the emergence of the metaverse concept, in which Meta (formerly Facebook) invested $10bn last year, and the horrifying scenes in virtual-space games as highlighted by Dispatches, raise a disturbing prospect. This is that while policymakers scramble to control the chaos on existing platforms, the billionaires who control digital media are already leaping ahead, while ignoring – according to their ingrained habit – the new dangers that novel modes of online moneymaking are sure to create. Meta’s Quest was the most downloaded app on Christmas Day in 2021, with 8m Oculus headsets sold so far.
Policymakers and campaigners deserve credit. Already, scrutiny of the UK bill has led to changes, including the long overdue introduction of compulsory age verification for pornography 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 are insufficient, despite the creation of a new cyberflashing offence. And there are concerns about how the bill will define “legal but harmful speech”, which major platforms will be required to shield adults from. Mumsnet fears that users’ discussions of topics such as eating disorders could fall foul of rules aimed at blocking damaging content.
MPs from all parties should engage with these issues and encourage a wider debate. The initial lax regulatory approach to social media was a mistake. Assumptions of default good behavior by users have been proved grossly overoptimistic. Companies should never have been allowed to launch products aimed at children without first proving that they were safe. If ministers are going to reject the NSPCC’s proposal of criminal penalties for tech company bosses who allow serious crimes against children to be committed on their platforms, they must explain why. As the charity points out, the financial services sector has them.
The power, wealth and influence of the tech sector are immense. But governments are not weaklings. Online safety must never again be an afterthought.