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Wednesday, April 09, 2008

The Least Worst Outcome – Assessing the Byron Review of Child Safety on the Internet and Computer Games

Dr Tanya Byron, a television personality and child psychologist, was appointed in September 20007 by the Prime Minister to lead a review into ‘Child Safety on the Internet and Computer Games’, reporting after a six month investigation in March 2008. Note that this article and the review itself do not consider illegal material within their remit: the content at issue is legal content. The review was created in response to increasing calls by Ministers for tighter regulation of these technologies to "think of the children", notably by Patricia Hewitt, when Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, and Home Secretary Jackie Smith in a series of calls for involuntary (sic) self-regulation of the Internet, to protect against various perceived threats. This use of the precautionary principle to attack the previous speech freedoms on the Internet culminated in policy terms with the Byron review and its conclusions.

The review was feared by the industry and dubbed the ‘Supernanny review’, after an infamous television programme. It was feared that the review would lead to greater regulation being imposed upon the industry, under the ‘Nanny State’ tendency, as Margaret Thatcher described the propensity towards state-directed parenting in the absence of proper individual parenting skills. This fear was heightened by the decision to base the review under the Department of Education (renamed for propaganda purposes), with a remit to increase the responsibilities placed on teachers as substitutes for parents who neglect their role. In the review period, the discussion centred around the vacuous United States term “empowerment”. Notably, no serious discussion about freedom of speech and the basic principles of the Internet was heard, and the ministries responsible for Internet content and regulation, Industry and Culture & Media, played a secondary role.

The conclusions produced by Byron were stark:

  • enforced self-regulation by the industry – an oxymoron elevated into a policy principle;
  • a beefed-up version of the already existing multi-stakeholder body which instead of having a community policing function inside the Home Office would now report to the Prime Minister in a cross-government fashion;
  • far greater resources for media literacy expended by the sponsoring ministry, the aforementioned Department for Education, instead of the function falling mainly to the independent regulator Ofcom; and
  • finally and most bizarrely, a system whereby the existing rating systems for games would be supplemented by the statutory regime for films, such that any games package would contain both ratings, one on the front and the other on the back of the game.

The results of the review were actually greeted by industry with some relief, as they had feared a much more interventionist approach. In fact, the outcome is effectively state regulation under the rubric of self-regulation, and with it significant erosion of speech freedoms for adults, in addition to the target of children. It mixes elements of the Australian, French and Francophone European approaches. In effect, state oversight of Internet and computer industries is foreseen.

The review takes little account of economic arguments, unsurprisingly. The Internet and computer games served functions which favoured free market capitalism as well as freedom of speech, a fortuitous and designed outcome. By interfering quite radically in the speech and market freedoms of UK service providers in this globalising industry, the review deliberately erodes British competitiveness in as much as it considers this possibility. A spurious claim that Britain can lead in introducing child-safety software blithely ignores the fact that the approach proposed follows the earlier interventionist approaches, rather than in any way leading. It is a further erosion of the already massively-declining British computer games design industry, which had in the early 1990s been pre-eminent.

So in what way is it least bad? First, it wrestles this co-regulation away from the Home Office and therefore the police function, though there is reference to the need to deal with suicide sites, suggesting further intervention. The institutional change is to be welcomed, as the police attempts to censor the Internet were beyond anything dreamt of in electoral politics. Second, such an initiative reporting to the Prime Minister will inevitably be politically irrelevant as weightier matters of economic recession and General Election loom in the next 2-3 years. Third, it will become deeply unpopular and then insignificant as it is realised that – as with so many educational and co-regulatory initiatives- it is largely an expensive waste of time. Finally, its very personal identification as the result of a policy alliance between a simpering and deeply unpopular Prime Minister attempting to demonstrate his human touch, and a careerist media figure, means its half-life is even shorter than that of the French design on which it is clearly based: the Forum des Droits sur l’Internet and its formidable chair, Isabelle Falque-Perrotin. The Byron review is dead, long live the Byron review!

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