Is the Online Harms ‘Dream Ticket’ a British Green Dam?

The legal duty in Online Harms government proposals is still vague.

For some it may sound like the ‘“dream ticket”.  A framework of censorship to be decided by companies, enabled through the IWF and the government in Online Safety laws. And ‘free’ to all. What companies are already doing today in surveillance of all outgoing  and *incoming* communications that is unlawful, made lawful. Literally, the nanny state could decide, what content will be blocked, if, “such software should “absolutely” be pre-installed on all devices for children at point of sale and “…people could run it the other side to measure what people are doing as far as uploading content.”

From Parliamentary discussion it was clear that the government will mandate platforms, “to use automated technology…, including, where proportionate, on private channels,” even when services are encrypted.

No problem, others might say, there’s an app for that. “It doesn’t matter what program the user is typing in, or how it’s encrypted.”

But it was less clear in the consultation outcome updated yesterday,  that closed in July 2019 and still says, “we are consulting on definitions of private communications, and what measures should apply to these services.” (4.8)

Might government really be planning to impose or incentivise surveillance on [children’s] mobile phones at the point of sale in the UK? This same ‘dream ticket’ company was the only company  mentioned by the Secretary of State for DCMS yesterday. After all, it is feasible. In 2009 Chinese state media reported that the Green Dam Youth Escort service, was only installed in 20 million computers in internet cafes and schools.

If government thinks it would have support for such proposals, it  may have overlooked the outrage that people feel about companies prying on our everyday lives. Or has already forgotten the summer 2020 student protests over the ‘mutant algorithm’.

There is conversely already incidental harm and opaque error rates from the profiling UK children’s behaviour while monitoring their online and offline computer activity, logged against thousands of words in opaque keyword libraries. School safeguarding services are already routine in England, and are piggy backed by the Prevent programme. Don’t forget one third of referrals to Prevent come from education and over 70% are not followed through with action.  Your child and mine might already be labelled with ‘extremism’, ‘terrorism’, ‘suicide’ or ‘cyberbullying’ or have had their photos taken by the webcam of their device an unlimited number of times, thanks to some of these ‘safeguarding’ software and services, and the child and parents never know.

Other things that were not clear yesterday, but will matter, is if the ‘harm’ of the Online Harms proposals will be measured by intent, or measured by the response to it. What is harm or hate or not, is contested across different groups online, and weaponised, at scale.

The wording of the Law Commission consultation closing on Friday on communications offences also matters, and asks about intention to harm a likely audience, where harm is defined as any non-trivial emotional, psychological, or physical harm, but should not require proof of actual harm. This together with any changes on hate crime and on intimate images in effect proposes changes on ‘what’ can be said, how, and ‘to whom’ and what is considered ‘harmful’ or ‘hateful’ conduct.  It will undoubtedly have massive implications for the digital environment once all joined up. It matters when ‘culture wars’ online, can catch children in the cross fire.

I’ve been thinking about all this, against the backdrop of the Bell v Tavistock [2020] EWHC 3274 judgement with implications from the consideration of psychological harm, children’s evolving capacity, the right to be heard and their autonomy, a case where a parent involved reportedly has not even told their own child.

We each have a right to respect for our private life, our family life, our home and our correspondence. Children are rights holders in their own right. Yet it appears the government and current changes in lawmaking may soon interfere with that right in a number of ways, while children are used at the heart of everyone’s defence.

In order to find that an interference is “necessary in a democratic society” any interference with rights and freedoms should be necessary and proportionate for each individual, not some sort of ‘collective’ harm that permits a rolling, collective interference.

Will the proposed outcomes prevent children from exercising their views or full range of rights, and restrict online participation? There may be a chilling effect on speech. There is in schools. Sadly these effects may well be welcomed by those who believe not only that some rights are more equal than others, but some children, more than others.

We’ll have to wait for more details. As another MP in debate noted yesterday, “The Secretary of State rightly focused on children, but this is about more than children; it is about the very status of our society ….”

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