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Pushy algorithms

cyberporn.jpgOne consequence of the last three and a half years of British politics, which saw everything sucked into the Bermuda Triangle of Brexit debates, is that things that appeared to have fallen off the back of the government's agenda are beginning to reemerge like so many sacked government ministers hearing of an impending cabinet reshuffle and hoping for reinstatement.

One such is age verification, which was enshrined in the Digital Economy Act (2017) and last seen being dropped to wait for the online harms bill.

A Westminster Forum seminar on protecting children online shortly before the UK's December 2019 general election, reflected that uncertainty. "At one stage it looked as if we were going to lead the world," Paul Herbert lamented before predicting it would be back "sooner or later".

The expectation for this legislation was set last spring, when the government released the Online Harms white paper. The idea was that a duty of care should be imposed on online platforms, effectively defined as any business-owned website that hosts "user-generated content or user interactions, for example through comments, forums, or video sharing". Clearly they meant to target everyone's current scapegoat, the big social media platforms, but "comments" is broad enough to include any ecommerce site that accepts user reviews. A second difficulty is the variety of harms they're concerned about: radicalization, suicide, self-harm, bullying. They can't all have the same solution even if, like one bereaved father, you blame "pushy algorithms".

The consultation exercise closed in July, and this week the government released its response. The main points:

- There will be plentiful safeguards to protect freedom of expression, including distinguishing between illegal content and content that's legal but harmful; the new rules will also require platforms to publish and transparently enforce their own rules, with mechanisms for redress. Child abuse and exploitation and terrorist speech will have the highest priority for removal.

- The regulator of choice will be Ofcom, the agency that already oversees broadcasting and the telecommunications industry. (Previously, enforcing age verification was going to be pushed to the British Board of Film Classification.)

- The government is still considering what liability may be imposed on senior management of businesses that fall under the scope of the law, which it believes is less than 5% of British businesses.

- Companies are expected to use tools to prevent children from accessing age-inappropriate content "and protect them from other harms" - including "age assurance and age verification technologies". The response adds, "This would achieve our objective of protecting children from online pornography, and would also fulfill the aims of the Digital Economy Act."

There are some obvious problems. The privacy aspects of the mechanisms proposed for age verification remain disturbing. The government's 5% estimate of businesses that will be affected is almost certainly a wild underestimate. (Is a Patreon page with comments the responsibility of the person or business that owns it or Patreon itself?). At the Guardian, Alex Hern explains the impact on businesses. The nastiest tabloid journalism is not within scope.

On Twitter, technology lawyer Neil Brown identifies four fallacies in the white paper: the "Wild West web"; that privately operated computer systems are public spaces; that those operating public spaces owe their users a duty of care; and that the offline world is safe by default. The bigger issue, as a commenter points out, is that the privately operated computer systems UK government seeks to regulate are foreign-owned. The paper suggests enforcement could include punishing company executives personally and ordering UK ISPs to block non-compliant sites.

More interesting and much less discussed is the push for "age-appropriate design" as a method of harm reduction. This approach was proposed by Lorna Woods and Will Perrin in January 2019. At the Westminster eForum, Woods explained, "It is looking at the design of the platforms and the services, not necessarily about ensuring you've got the latest generation of AI that can identify nasty comments and take it down."

It's impossible not to sympathize with her argument that the costs of move fast and break things are imposed on the rest of society. However, when she started talking about doing risk assessments for nascent products and services I could only think she's never been close to software developers, who've known for decades that from the instant software goes out into the hands of users they will use it in ways no one ever imagined. So it's hard to see how it will work, though last year the ICO proposed a code of practice.

The online harms bill also has to be seen in the context of all the rest of the monitoring that is being directed at children in the name of keeping them - and the rest of us - safe. DefendDigital.me has done extensive work to highlight the impact of such programs as Prevent, which requires schools and libraries to monitor children's use of the Internet to watch for signs of radicalization, and the more than 20 databases that collect details of every aspect of children's educational lives. Last month, one of these - the Learning Records Service - was caught granting betting companies access to personal data about 28 million children. DefendDigital.me has called for an Educational Rights Act. This idea could be usefully expanded to include children's online rights more broadly.


Illustrations: Time magazine's 1995 "Cyberporn" cover, which marked the first children-Internet panic.

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.

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