The Children’s Media Foundation (CMF)

Internet Matters

John Kent is Digital Representative on the CMF Executive Group. Here’s his take on the latest storms to hit Silicon Valley…

Over the last few weeks social media - particularly Facebook - has been very much in the news. It follows an intense few months when digital platforms have been a regular source of headlines. While the impact on children is not always obvious, there are important implications for children’s media and the younger audience. It’s been a busy few months for the CMF, but also in some ways encouraging to see that some of our long-expressed concerns are entering the mainstream.

The current controversy around the use of Facebook data in the US election and the EU referendum is alarming. But behind the headlines are some important, underlying issues that have to be addressed by government and society. While the news focuses on algorithms, at the core is a debate about the value and ownership of data. Reports suggest that Facebook has shared data on millions of users. We’ve become used to an internet and vital everyday websites that are free at the point of use, but to pay for that access users are trading their personal data which, as Facebook’s revenue highlights, has value far beyond the costs of the service provided.

The platforms would argue that they have done nothing wrong: users agree to terms and conditions, which means the platforms can exploit the data. They’re right. However, the question for us, and for kids as consumers, and equally important for the companies themselves in terms of the relationship they are building with their customers, is whether users understand the implications and can make an informed decision. In addition, as the platforms evolve, do users continue to understand how that data can be used. Obviously these issues are particularly pertinent to children and their use of the internet.

One of the outcomes of the current controversy is that internet safety has risen to the top of the Government’s agenda - anything to distract from Brexit! The Prime Minister has committed to publishing a strategy paper in the Spring of this year, following a review of the responses to the Government Green Paper on Internet Safety. And recently the Secretary of State at DDCMS, Matt Hancock, has argued for increased regulation of social media platforms. The CMF, and other organisations with an interest in these issues non profits, have been participating in a series of government round table events intended to inform the developing policy.

These round tables have tried to address many of the issues around internet safety, including whether there should be a levy on social media platforms to fund activity that will improve media literacy, and whether the platforms should be viewed as publishers, which would significantly change their legal responsibility. Inevitably they have also covered the other ‘big issue’ of the day for children online - whether You Tube is a safe environment for kids. This is a question that first made headlines following YouTube maker Logan Paul’s video that featured victims of suicide in Japan. It’s created lots of discussion, but two notable commentaries on this came from James Bridle on Medium and CBBC’s Ed Petrie in a Guardian interview – both worth a read.

 

Unfortunately, none of the current debates are new. Many of the issues being reported now have been predicted and championed by the CMF for months (even years) in our various submissions to Parliamentary consultations and public statements. These submissions are based on insight, research and understanding of the children’s audience – something that is still lacking at the social media platforms. Now, it would appear that children have been the ‘canaries in the coalmine’ when it comes to internet safety, integrity and responsible relationships between providers and their users. And as the social media platforms start to think seriously about their bottom-line and their shareholders – in light of keeping their customers happy – the time could be ripe for greater acceptance of their role in being part of the village that brings up our kids…

We hope this might also mean that children’s needs are given greater weight in the policy-making process. Certainly they are on the government agenda, the press agenda, and parents have at last been empowered to speak out about what concerns them.

CMF’s role will be to seek not knee-jerk reactions, but reasoned and reasonable responses that are deliverable in the real world, reflecting the pervasive nature of social media for good and ill and the need for all parties to work together to makes sure kids get the very best of the internet with protection from the worst.

Industry Policy

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