- 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.
But 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?
The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites