We warmly welcome the House of Lords Select Committee on Communications report published on March 21, 2017, Growing up with the Internet, the 2nd Report of Session 2016–17.

In particular we support the main findings in areas of data privacy and child rights and a key conclusion that,

“The minimum standards should require that the strictest privacy settings should be ‘on’ by default, geolocation should be switched off until activated, and privacy and geolocation settings must not change during either manual or automatic system upgrades.”

Transparency, Communication and Consent

In ‘Duty of Care’ in schools, the report picks up our criticisms of the Department for Education statutory guidance which came into effect in 2016. The report notes that the guidance “recommends filtering and “appropriate monitoring”. However, it does not define what this means.”

The report mentions our consultation contribution in which we called for change, increased transparency and greater attention to children’s rights, which we see ignored in discussions that focus exclusively on policy aims rather than the individual person it affects:

“characterised by lack of transparent due diligence, public engagement, or democratic debate before imposing significant policy with far reaching potential, and that encroach on children’s rights.”

We warmly welcome the report findings in this policy area which made two conclusions including a right to opt out and informed consent over the use of Internet monitoring technology:

“We caution that internet safety systems should not undermine children’s rights to privacy, to learn about the world and to express themselves. The Government should require schools to obtain the informed consent of parents and students, and they should have the opportunity to opt out.”

“The Government should ensure that schools are sufficiently resourced and directed to meet their obligations of child protection, including the ability to train their teachers and to develop digital policies which are right for them and to discern what sort of filtering and monitoring systems are appropriate, together with pastoral care, education and supporting parents.”

Data Collection and Privacy

The routine, commercial use of data presents particular privacy concerns for children.” (163) and the Committee recommends that “all platforms and businesses operating online must not seek to commercially benefit or exploit value from the sharing or transfer of data gained from a child’s activities online.” (28)

We are also pleased to see the inclusion of children’s own opinions in ‘Meeting with children’. While it is hard to be representative and care is needed not to use children to frame the story that one wants to present, the stories are those we hear again and again, and many of which appear common sense, such as a wish to see privacy settings being set to maximum by default, rather than the reverse.

While we agree that social media companies and companies must be involved in these discussions as the government plans, we hope that these discussions will go beyond companies whose own business models can exploit children’s user data. We need to increase the range of technical solutions that typically inform DfE policy today for example. “And many witnesses wanted to see a much broader set of standards that include respect for privacy and design for wellbeing.” (281)

Further we agree with the Committee in their measured praise of the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport announcement of a new Internet Safety Strategy initiative involving ministers and officials from departments across Government including the Home Office, Department for Education, Department of Health and Ministry of Justice. The primary intention of this is “preventing children and young people from harm online” (362) and we share the Committee’s concern “on two fronts. First, we are concerned that the focus of the Government’s policy is primarily danger and risk.”

The second concern is a lack of concrete action and progress despite meetings and reflections of the need for change and need in a changing landscape:

Any future policy should be based on principles which firmly place children’s rights, wellbeing and needs as the preeminent considerations at all points of the internet value chain where the end user is a child. This shared responsibility requires all stakeholders to play their part, and all parties to sustain their commitment to children’s wellbeing in what is a rapidly changing landscape that will include on the near horizon the Internet of Things and Artificial Intelligence.” (353)

The Committee further calls for PSHE be mandatory in all schools whatever their status and that the PSHE curriculum should include education on data gathering (318) and noted computer science lessons did not go far enough in teaching digital literacy. (310)

Rights need championed within Regulation

The report cautions against over restrictive child protection policies at the expense of other rights, based on various witness comments and evidence including ours. (159)

Professor Phippen cautioned: “In our rush to ensure children are “safe” online, we risk a dystopia where the young have limited access to relevant and valuable information (for example, sexual health, relationships advice, information about gender and sexuality), increasing erosion of the privacy, and a failure to meet their rights to an education that is fit for purpose and one they are calling for.” (255)

The recommendation that the Government should establish the post of Children’s Digital Champion at the centre of the Government within the Cabinet Office is a bold one if it can truly have an independent influence and cross departmental inisght, “with a remit to advocate on behalf of children to industry, regulators and at ministerial level across all Government departments.”

The Committee concluded that,  “this issue is of such critical importance for our children that the Government, civil society and all those in the internet value chain must work together to improve the opportunities and support where the end user is a child. Ultimately it is for the Government to ensure that this happens.”

We too, look forward to the response.

 


Background:

The aim of the inquiry was to examine the concerns, as well as the possible benefits, presented by the changing relationship between children and the internet; and to investigate how policies and practices might increase the value of the internet for children. It defines ‘children’ to mean any person under the age of 18, but welcomed suggestions how policy should be adapted to address the particular needs of different age groups.

The inquiry focused on three main areas:
(1) How the increase in use of and access to the internet is affecting the development and wellbeing of children in both positive and negative ways.

(2) The responsibility of industry to develop and maintain controls, and the responsibility of users to practise self-governance

(3) Legislation and regulation in this field.

It asked what risks and benefits increased internet usage presents to children, with particular regard to:

(i) Social development and wellbeing
(ii) neurological, cognitive and emotional development,
(iii) Data security.