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The Three Calls to Action for the G7 on Online Safety

The Three Calls to Action for the G7 on Online Safety

Ian Stevenson, Chair of the Online Safety Tech Industry Association (OSTIA) and CEO of Cyan 

I was recently invited to speak on behalf of OSTIA at the G7 Safety Tech Summit, where senior officials from G7 countries came together to start putting into action the measures agreed by G7 Interior Ministers in September.

The Australian eSafety Commissioner Julie Inman Grant gave the keynote address at the event and spoke passionately and eloquently to suggest that the tech industry’s ‘seatbelt moment’ is fast approaching. I highly recommend reading the overview which you can find here. She rightly identifies the important intersection between Safety by Design and Safety Tech as key to a safer internet. 

In preparation for the Summit, we put a call out to OSTIA members to get their views on what is needed from governments to help the sector deliver on its goals of making the internet safer.  I was impressed by the depth of thinking that went into the responses, and while I couldn’t convey every suggestion from the group in the time available, I was able to organise them thematically into three key calls to action. 

We believe that governments can have enormous impact by helping improve the quality of debate on online safety, and especially its interaction with other rights. 

We also believe that clear guidance is absolutely key, with ambitious and outcome-focused regulation balanced with realism about technology capabilities and costs. 

Finally, we believe that governments can provide practical support for the development of technology and infrastructure needed to achieve their objectives, often at relatively small costs to achieve high impacts.

I sincerely hope that this “seatbelt moment” is imminent, however we’re not there yet.  As we approach another key opportunity for leaders to explore the way forward at the G7 Future Tech Forum, we hope leaders will keep these calls to action in mind.

  1. QUALITY OF DEBATE

Too often the debate around implementation of regulation and associated technology becomes bogged down in an adversarial quagmire, with privacy advocates piling in from one side and safety advocates from the other.  This sort of highly polarised conflict is potentially the key barrier to improving safety online.

Governments have an opportunity to improve the quality of the debate through education and leadership in key areas including:

  • Privacy is not “binary” – no system today offers perfect privacy and that’s OK – we need to be talking about appropriate, sufficient, even excellent privacy, but not absolute. 
  • Additions of safety tech should be judged based on realistic threat models against the baseline of the real privacy delivered by todays system – not some idealised view.
  • There needs to be a balance between privacy, free speech and safety – optimising only for one crushes the others.  Elected governments working with all stakeholders are a better place for these decisions to happen than profit driven companies.
  • Safety (just like privacy) is about everyone.  Child abuse is more prevalent than many believe, so make sure stats on online hate, misogyny and child abuse are used to support this and show that this is like cancer – you know people who are affected by this issue even if you don’t know who – everyone should care.
  • Privacy is not an absolute right in any other sphere of life, there are occasions where it is essential, and this is one of them.  We’re searched before flying to keep aeroplanes safe.  We’re ID’d before opening a bank account or even buying alcohol.  Police can enter private homes with a warrant or if they believe a crime is in progress.
  • Blanket freedom of speech is not an absolute right, we need to put it into perspective.  One could be thrown out of a bar for being abusive to another patron, or arrested for stalking or abusing someone in the street, why should the rules be different online?
  • Promoting the increasing body of evidence of public support for online safety measures in the UK and Europe (even if there is a small cost to privacy).
  • Recognise that different measures are appropriate and proportionate for different harm types – there is no viable “one size fits all” approach.

Only by having a high-quality debate about regulation and the issues it raises can we ensure the right regulatory regimes are introduced while minimising the negative impacts of excessively polarised debate.

2. CLEAR GUIDANCE

The market for safety technology is still emerging, and as a result innovation and development of solutions are dependent on investment. If governments wish to see solutions develop and mature before legislation is passed and regulation comes in (so they are ready to deploy when needed), they need to help investors understand what solutions regulatory compliance will require. In an ideal world, investors would have confidence that:

  • Legislation will focus on outcomes and will be technology agnostic to avoid shutting out innovation. 
  • Regulators will provide clear guidance on what good compliance looks like based on the best available technologies.
  • Safety regulation measures will dovetail with other regulatory regimes including data protection to give both solution developers and platform companies confidence in the correct course of action (and that satisfying Ofcom won’t incur the wrath of the ICO – or vice-versa).
  • International alignment on guidelines across multiple geographies will ensure safety tech has global applicability even if there are local or regional variations.

Clear guidance has the potential to act as a force multiplier, empowering safety tech companies and platform companies alike to invest in new safety capabilities with confidence.

3. PRACTICAL ASSISTANCE

In some areas governments should offer practical support to drive developments needed to support online safety policy objectives.

The UK government has already supported many practical measures including the establishing the Safety Tech Innovation Network, the Online Safety Data Initiative and Safety Tech Challenge Fund.  It has helped to define the sector by publishing Sector Analysis. Regular engagement from the UK government helps OSTIA members plan and invest in safety tech for the future.

We hope the UK government will continue to invest and will encourage others to do the same.

There are many ways governments can continue to help develop the sector to deliver the technology they want:

  • Challenge Funds or Innovation Funding in areas where tech is still emerging.
  • Extending existing government investment fund and innovation programmes to cover online safety.
  • Leveraging existing government spend by demanding safety features in government procured IT systems (government is one of the biggest markets for technology) creating market pull.
  • Convening stakeholders to discuss and address key challenges, in particular around the data necessary to train, test, power and evaluate solutions.
  • Helping investors understand opportunities in the sector driven by government plans.
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