The law online: Rights, access, benefits for children can’t be discounted

From encryption to education and privacy to politics, government confusion is evident. Green peer Natalie Bennett explains.

Children online computer
Children online computer
Green peer Natalie Bennett

The Online Safety Bill, now being debated – at significant length – in the House of Lords, has its origins in a government White Paper, then addressing ‘Online Harms’ in April 2019. It is a Bill whose progress has been marked by significant government U-turns – with pressure on it from what might be loosely defined as the ‘free speech’ lobby versus the ‘protect children and vulnerable adults’ grouping. There’s also a Big Tech lobby and a ‘concerned about Big Tech’ lobby.

This has combined with a government that clearly lacks a grasp of the issues and the directions in which it wants to head, producing some dizzying see-saws. One example is the original inclusion of education in digital literacy, later dropped (I’m backing forthcoming amendments that would restore them). 

Then there’s the ‘end-to-end encryption’ of private message issues, on which House members have received significant lobbying from Britons gravely concerned about the threat to their privacy. I quoted a range of NGOs, from Liberty to Article 19, pointing out ‘none of us want to feel as though someone is looking over our shoulder when we are communicating’.

As I pointed out some people crucial to our democracy and human rights around the world, investigative journalists and campaigners, have particular cause for concern about this amendment. For should tools be created to break through the encryption, even should the UK be the only place to mandate them, it’s a technical genie unlikely to remain in its bottle. It was obvious from the debate that the government is far from clear on what it is asking for, and the possible impacts, which could, at one end, see companies like WhatsApp leaving the UK.

But underlying all of the debate around the Bill, and the government’s approach, is its starting position – focused on harms and safety, rather than benefits and gains, particularly for young people.

The thesis – expressed by Tory backbencher Lord Bethall among others – has been that the internet is an adult thing being used by children. I suggested that’s never been the case – from the start of the digital age, computers have been as much a children’s and young people’s realm as their elders. In either 1979 or 1980, aged about 14, I was playing ‘Lemonade Stand’ on one of the early Apples. This might have been considered to be a harmful game from some political perspectives, given that it very much encouraged a capitalist mindset and the Americanisation of culture – but it was part of my world.

If we look back over the history of the internet, we see that some of the companies started out with young people, under the age of 18 in some cases, who have been at the forefront of innovation and development of what we now think of as our social media or internet world. This is the children’s world as much as it is the adults’ world, and that is the reality.

Taking up that positive approach, I have backed an amendment proposing that the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child be incorporated in the Bill, pointing to a report to the United Nations from the Equality and Human Rights Commission in February this year that stressed that it is crucial to preserve children’s rights to accessible information and digital connectivity.

 A big report by UNICEF in 2019, Global Kids Online, which, crucially, involved a huge amount of surveys, consultation and consideration by young people said that it was quite easy to defend access to information and to reputable sources, but showed that accessing entertainment activities – some of the things that perhaps some grandparents in the House might have trouble with – was also associated with the positive development of digital skills. Furthermore, the report says: “When parents restrict children’s internet use” – of course, this could also apply to the Government restricting their internet use – “this has a negative effect on children’s information-seeking and privacy skills”.

So, if you do not give children the chance to develop these skills to learn how to navigate the internet, and they suddenly go to it at age 18 and a whole lot of stuff is out there that they have not developed any skills to deal with, you are setting yourself up for a real problem.

The Unicef report found that ‘fewer than one third of children had been exposed to’ something they had found uncomfortable or upsetting in the preceding year. Which was not the impression that would have been gained from lots of our debate.

Other figures worth noting from this report include the finding that ‘one in three children globally is … an internet user and …. one in three internet users is a child’. The report also said, looking at the Sustainable Development Goals on quality of education, good jobs and reducing inequality, that internet access for children was crucial.

Children and young people have agency and the ability to act and engage in politics – much of which today is conducted online. In Scotland and Wales, 16 and 17 year-olds have the vote. I very much hope that that will soon also be the case in England, and indeed I hope that soon children even younger than that that will have the vote – and need the information to support that.

Historically, we have seen examples where blocks and filters have denied children and young people who identify as LGBTQI+ access to crucial information for them. That is an example of the risk if we do not allow them right of access. On the most basic children’s right of all, we have also seen examples of blocks and filters that have stopped access to breastfeeding information on the internet. Access is a crucial issue, and what could be a more obvious way to allow it than by writing in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of the Child?