Rory Cellan-Jones

Social networks - will the government crack down?

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 2 Apr 08, 14:04 GMT

Last week we had the Byron review, today we have Ofcom research on children and social networking and on Friday the Home Office will publish what it calls "Good Practice Guidance for the Providers of Social Networking and Other User Interactive Services". The overall impression coming from British regulators and ministers is that the government is preparing to crack the whip over the issue of safety for child users of Bebo, MySpace and Facebook.

Two girls sitting at a PCBut that impression is false. Why? Because the government knows it has little or no power to make the social networks change the way they do business. After all, none of the big players are based in Britain. What it can do is make the mood music change so that it is difficult for the networks to ignore the message that they need to clean up their act.

I have been passed a draft copy of that new Home Office voluntary code - and let's be clear it is just that, voluntary. So for instance it says "service providers should consider" putting 999 and other emergency numbers on their sites for children to call if they feel in danger. They should "minimise the risk of users under the age of 18 accessing adult or other age inappropriate content" and they "should continue to evaluate technologies that identify and verify the age of customers for their effectiveness". This final recommendation is at the heart of the matter - knowing how old someone is can be vital, both to prevent under-age children from accessing these sites, and to keep out adults posing as children.

But the companies - and the government - know age verification brings a whole new set of problems. How do you enable the networks to make these checks without giving them access to exactly the kind of data that most internet users won't want to hand over?

In summary, the networks are under pressure to clean up their act - but the government has no means of punishing them if they don't. So why is it bothering? Well the obvious answer is that the young audience is moving away from television to the internet. Regulation of what they see on television is getting even tighter, with the recent banning of advertising of junk food, a move which makes the economics of making commercial television for children very unattractive. But on a social network they can watch all kinds of video content and be bombarded with advertising which could be unsuitable for their age group.

The regulators have woken up to this anomaly - but they've realised they can only work through persuasion. When it comes to issues about safety and privacy it looks as though the networks will fall into line. But will they be quite so keen to give up on advertising of fizzy drinks and fast food?


Great point. I am still uneasy about the government catching onto the idea the child protection is a great way of regulating the internet.

I am we will see something like this form the new government in the USA who maybe keen to move away from doing all there dirty work under the banner of anti-terrorism - but they will be happy to do it under the banner of anti paedophillia


  • 2.
  • At 05:08 PM on 02 Apr 2008,
  • Peter E wrote:

It is too late for the government to stop this social erosion, they are too busy eroding your privacy, trying to live out 1984, over twenty years late and who knows how far over budget.

Social networking sites (SNS) sites are the younger generation's rebellion against the old and wise. Where they can gang up on the old fogeys and be stalked by bullies, and criminal elements.
Computers in the bedroom, youtube and all that are turning the kids into a generation of slobs of dubious moral competence.

Much like the advent of television did to our generation. We survived it, (well, those of us that didn't have to suffer MTV did) but our parents aren't that impressed with the results.

For them, the television was our babysitter. Put us in front of the boob tube, watch it suck out our brains and fill it with drivel.

For us, it's the internet. Let them suck their own brains out while their perceptions and realities erode away. As the saying goes: Out of sight, out of mind.

Even better, when one of them goes loopy and kills someone, we can pour outrage at the game makers, the websites, in every direction except those who should have been responsible. Us. The parents.

As parents, it is our destiny to be uncool, to be out of touch with the younger generation. Yet it is also our responsibility to nurture them and help them grow into responsible adults.

Do you know where your child has surfed today?

  • 3.
  • At 11:21 PM on 02 Apr 2008,
  • Michael wrote:

A the end of the day, it's not the governments job to pry into young peoples social life. I am 16, I know what i'm talking about. I read the Byron review and to be honest, it is just what I expected. Blame the game makers rather than the parents. Even I know that. Even with the suggested restrictions on social networking sites and games, we would still find a way to break it. It's not that hard. Short of making it mandatory to have a virtual "Passport", there is no way of making kids put in their real date of birth, it's lust like George Orwell's "1984".

The way I see it is the government is trying to become "Thought police" preventing childeren from getting a dose of the real world. Fair enough protecting them from paedophiles and other scum, but i hardly view it as a crime that they talk to a friend in America online. I don't use facebook, or Myspace, or Bebo and, although many friends are on them, have no intention of joining one. I have better things to do.

Basically the issue is with parents, but oh no! It's not their fault that they let little timmy watch porn, or take drugs, or (Insert poor behaviour here). Blame the INTERNET! Going on our computers, stealing our electricity, mumble, mumble...

I can safely say, without fear of contradiction, that it's the parents fault and they are desperately trying to find anything as a scape-goat.

  • 4.
  • At 04:37 PM on 04 Apr 2008,
  • jimbob wrote:

Maybe if the Governemnt helped provide IT training to parents on how to secure home computers that would be a start.

All it takes is for parents to be interested in computers and learn something about computers and the internet.

Then it is a process of setting your home PC up with seperate user names (just one administrator) so access can be controlled. Even content filtering comes with Internet Explorer these days. And as long as you keep the administrator password strong and a secret all will be well. Little Timmy will not be able to make any changes if he is not an administrator.

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