In this Safeguarding Podcast we discuss Brexit and the impact it could have on the safeguarding of children in the online digital context. With contributions from Baroness Sal Brinton, President Liberal Democrats; Will Gardner, CEO Childnet International; David Wright, Director UK SIC & SWGfL; Rudd Apsey, Director Digital Policy Alliance; former Chief Superintendent Met Police Dal Babu; researcher, broadcaster and lecturer Dr Holly Powell-Jones; Jonny Shipp, Director the Internet Commission; Stephen Balkam, CEO FOSI; John Carr OBE; Susie Hargreaves OBE, CEO IWF, Fred Langford CTO IWF.
There’s a lightly edited transcript of the podcast below for those that can’t use podcasts, or for those that simply prefer to read.
Welcome to the Safetonet Foundation’s Safeguarding podcast where we talk about all things to do with safeguarding children in the online digital context.
The Online Digital Context is at the intersection of Law, Technology, and Ethics & culture, and comprises all the stakeholders between a child using a smartphone and the persons online that they are interacting with.
Law is an area that we’ve explored numerous times in these podcasts because laws create the legal frame works that help protect children both on and offline.
As a registered charity in the UK we cannot get involved in politics, however politics and law are inextricably linked and the most momentous political event as far as the UK is concerned is Brexit, so it’s right and proper that we ask what impact Brexit will have on the safeguarding of children online.
This topic has cropped up from time to time in a number of podcasts and I’d like to review the contributions to this debate from some of our podcast guests. I should point out that I have invited prominent politicians as opposed to safeguarding experts and practitioners, such as Nigel Farage, the former PM Teresa May who famously triggered Article 50, as well as the current and former home secretaries, but so far no one’s stepped forward.
The first podcast guest was Susie Hargreaves OBE, CEO of the Internet Watch Foundation whose podcast was published a year before the Withdrawal Agreement came into force and we left the EU to enter the Transition Period.
There is one other area that I need to explore with you and it’s January, 2019 with something like less than 60 days before the B word kicks off. We cannot avoid the topic of Brexit. We can’t avoid it really because you are a charity and you do get funding from your members, the people that pay for your services, but you also receive substantial grants from the EU. I think you’ve successfully secured funding from the EU until 2020, but then all bets are off.
And to my mind be an awful shame if for lack of some money, this service stopped. I don’t know if this is an existential crisis for you, but clearly there must be an impact.
Absolutely. I mean, we do get £400,000 a year from the EU and that actually pays directly for some salaries in the hotline. It pays 50% of salaries and the hotline and that’s what’s really important to recognize that unless we get that money back, we’ll have to cut down our staff.
So we’re working really hard to look at how we can raise money from other sources. The [EU] money is guaranteed to the end of 2020. We are in discussion with the UK government, but we’re also looking at other possibilities.
One thing we’ve never really explored before, which we’re looking at now, is donations from the public. We need to raise our profile a bit because we want people to know that we’re here, we exist and are providing really important services for the UK. And we’re looking for ways to generate [money], and meet that gap.
But not just meet that gap because we could always do more. Actually, we want to grow what we’re doing. We could have another 20 analysts in there and we could be doing work every day and we could bring down loads more content.
We can, we can bring down as much content as we have analysts and bear in mind that yesterday our analysts took action on a thousand web pages, they are pretty effective teams. Think how much we could do if we have more people!
Coming out with the EU is also problematic for us in terms of legislation and we’re part of In Hope, which is the network of hotlines. But, but the main challenge for us is that funding, you’re absolutely right to mention that Neil.
Exactly one year later to the day, our most recent podcast also featured someone from the IWF, their CTO, Fred Langford.
Okay. Now you mentioned the EU and in two weeks’ time, at the current time of recording, in two weeks’ time, we are supposed to be leaving, whatever that might mean. Will we still be beholden to EU laws, rules and regulations in the context of safeguarding?
Well I don’t think we will in the longer term. I think in the short term, yes, nothing’s going to change, which like you say, we don’t know what the details are of the agreement and how we’re going to be exited in a few weeks’ time.
But yes, it’s definitely going to have an impact I think because collectively the EU states are quite a voice when it comes to sometimes trying to raise issues in the US which I know it sounds like it’s not a million miles away, the internet’s small, but actually in cultural understanding of what the internet is there to do I think we’re quite a way apart as in Europe and the West coast of the US.
So a lot of the debate in the West coast of the US is all around privacy and it’s come from the Snowden revelations and what was taking place there, whereas in the European Union, quite a lot of the debate is around users’ control of their own data, and at the moment we don’t really have these married, should we say. And collectively as EU States, we could put some pressure on some of the West coast companies to rethink their approach, and I think with the UK breaking out, it’s a little bit uncertain at the moment what influence we will have.
And I think this will be key to the sort of allied States, “Five Eyes” as they would be called in sort of a military or inter-governmental parlance, which would be the US, Canada, UK, Australia and New Zealand, working together to devise policies that will be able to work across a changing landscape, is probably the best way of describing it.
In March I met with the peerless John Carr OBE at the House of Lords.
Now it’s early March and uh, time is marching on and we have a bit of a buffer, a railway buffer coming up towards the end of the month, which is Brexit and we can’t really avoid that because there is an impact, or there may well be an impact, on child safe guarding, particularly in the online environment because it’s a numbers game.
As a member of the EU, as we are today, we are in a geographic region of some half a billion people and there are common rules, laws, regulations, call them what you will, that affects everybody, like half a billion people in all of those countries and obviously all of the children too. And were the EU able to pass some laws, rules, regulations to help protect children online, then we would be automatically included in that, assuming we agreed and voted and didn’t visa or whatever. But outside of the, we are not necessarily obliged to follow EU laws, rules, regulations. Is that right?
John Carr OBE
Well I have two things to say about that. I am a consultant to the Council of Europe. I’m also a consultant to a global NGO based in Bangkok. I travel a lot around the world and I often visit small countries outside of Europe. One of the things that they almost all say is we can’t get anybody to listen to us.
You know, they ask me if I can help them make a connection with Facebook or Google or Microsoft or one of the big American companies, and of course I do because I work with these people and I know them. But it’s simply this, these small countries, small markets, the big companies don’t care that much. I mean, obviously they will never say it like that, but that’s the reality.
The European Union, different kettle of fish. They have to care what the European Union says and does because it’s the biggest single and richest market in the world and if we’re outside it, who knows?
II can remember years and years ago before we formed the European coalition of children’s organizations, going to talk to big American companies and saying, we don’t think this is right. We want to explore this. And they would say to us, oh, it’s funny, you’re the only people saying this anywhere in the world. We never believed that, but they were able to say it.
Once we got our act together, and once we formed this European-wide coalition of children’s organizations, we knew perfectly well that what the children’s groups in the other European countries were saying is pretty much identical to what we were saying.
So being in big international blocks such as the European Union is incredibly important and it’s an another of the many tragedies that will follow if we do in the end Brexit, although I think we’re going to have to stay aligned broadly speaking to EU rules. I mean if the United States and China are going to have to adapt their policies to make sure they can sell and work in Europe, I’m pretty sure that an independent Britain outside of Europe, outside of the European Union, is going to have to do the same.
The international impact of EA legislation that John refer to was echoed by Stephen Balkam, CEO of the American organization, Family Online Safety Institute or FOSI in a podcast that will be published soon.
And I’d like to explore some upcoming U S legislations and the impact that they may have on children’s online safety. And the first of those is the revised version of copper, the child online privacy and protection act. And I think this is known as copper to what changes are being made there. Stephen?
Well before I respond to that, let me just say something, the way you typified that I would have totally agreed with say a couple of years ago. I do believe that COPPA the Child Online Privacy Protection Act, which is now what, 21 years old has been pretty much the ruling piece of legislation that has been exported around the world. And very typically it means that you have to be 13 to get onto social media.
Prior to 13 social media sites and others have to ask permission from parents to collect personal information about their children. Where I would slightly now differ is that the passing of the GDPR in Europe has changed the landscape dramatically and it’s actually for the first time as it were a European regulation is now having a big impact over here in the States.
Yes. One of the other features of the proposed COPPA 2 legislation would appear to be, it’s called an “eraser button” for children in particular to delete content that they’ve posted in a way that doesn’t violate the First Amendment. Often in America these kinds of issues butt up against the written constitution and is regarded as a speech issue. But nonetheless, this is equivalent I think to the European “Right to be Forgotten” where we treat this as a debt as a data issue. Now it superficially, at least we’ve got the age in COPPA to going up to 16 and we’ve got the equivalent of a “Right to be Forgotten”. So is this what you mean by GDPR from Europe influencing what’s going on in the US?
For sure. I mean, Senator Markey who is a Senator from Massachusetts is a huge fan of GDPR. I mean, he, every time he speaks on the topic and he has his own proposed legislation he raises that as the gold standard. And this is what we need over here.
Jonny Shipp of the Internet Commission suggested that the rest of the Europe is looking at developments in the UK.
Now we’re at a funny point in history for the UK because we have voted to leave the EU, you mentioned Europe. It seems to me that there’s an argument for scale here. The bigger the numbers, the stronger the argument and being part of a region of half a billion people, which has got some rules around content and moderation and all those kinds of things, the license to operate as you termed it, you’d have more impact as being part of that, than being a small island with 76 or 70 million people in it. So is this a good thing or a bad thing, or it doesn’t make any difference?
Jonny Shipp, Internet Commission
Well, there’s a been a lot of interest in the [UK Government’s Online Harms] White Paper in Europe. I think lots of other European governments are looking to see what the UK Government can come up with. It’s a massive undertaking to try and regulate this space, and they’ve had a go at it and I think that the other countries are interested, and will be informed.
The ultimate shape will be shaped collaboratively across the world really. I think it’s fairly certain that the UK will still be involved in part of a European approach to this. I mean, I speak broadly, I use the word Europe as opposed to China and America. So we’re not going to suddenly become Chinese or part of the United States if we leave the EU!
Author, researcher, broadcaster on Online Media Law Dr Holly Powell-Jones also discussed GDPR and the European Convention on Human Rights.
So the GDPR has been an attempt by the European Union to tighten up on privacy. And in part, this has been a reason why one of the social media companies I think Snapchat, has raised its minimum age to 16, at least as far as its European operations is concerned. Is this a good thing? Do you think this is an area that law or regulations at least, the law, have been applied to the good as far as children are concerned? Should all social media sites have a minimum age of 16?
Dr Holly Powell-Jones
What I like about GDPR and the new Data Protection Act 2018, is that it is trying to give more rights to the subject of data, which I think is very, very important. What we’re talking about here are principles and rights. You have a legal right to privacy under Article Eight of the European Convention on Human Rights, and that is how subjects can exercise some control and some power through things like GDPR in terms of what is or isn’t appropriate for companies to hold about them.
But I think there’s another question with law, which is enforcement. It’s all very well enshrining rights, in principle, in law. But actually, it’s also important to look at how people are educated about those rights and how they can enforce those rights. Because if you’re not educating people that they have those rights and you’re not making sure that the procedures are in place so that people can enforce those rights, it’s just a symbolic and not a very practical act.
So, I’m very much at the end of the spectrum where I want to educate people about their rights and try to give practical support to people who want to do that. Changing the law in principle doesn’t change people’s behaviours in practice all the time, unless it is enforced [and they’re] educated.
In our most controversial podcast of last year, former Chief Super Intendant of the Met Police Dal Babu talked about the impact Brexit might have on radicalisation.
Now I understand that the Radicalisation Awareness Network is at least part funded by the EU. What impact would Brexit have on that, or any other anti-radicalization programs or organizations that are in place?
Well, I think there’s two issues. We don’t have the bandwidth to discuss anything in detail other than Brexit at the moment [in Government]. So at the moment, anything else, no matter how important, just doesn’t get a look in.
Parliament is paralyzed by Brexit. It’s been three years since the vote was conducted. We’re seeing more and more evidence that there’s a huge disparity between what we were told was going to happen, the most famous one saying £50 million per week going to the NHS, which now people say well, okay, it’s painted on the bus but it won’t happen if we have Brexit. So, we don’t have that kind of discussion.
I think that the European Union has provided a lot of funding for working on de-radicalisation. A lot of that money will go under Brexit. We won’t have the network, the exchange of information will also be limited.
In April I discussed Age Verification with Rudd Apsey of the Digital Policy Alliance.
Okay. Well, we should have left the EU a few days ago, but we’ve got an extension. Is there not then an EU-wide approach to this and should we end up leaving the EU, which seems to me more and more in the balance, but should we end up leaving would we have to implement any EU-wide legislation anyway because we still want to trade with the EU?
Rudd Apsey, DPA
Well, if I just follow on the German example. What we did in the UK and what the regulators have done and what we advised and sort of pushed hard to make sure is that, in the UK, if you’re serving adult content online to UK citizens, it doesn’t matter what domain your site is on, if it can be viewed in the UK, that site must have Age Verification. So that was a big decision.
Okay. So whether it was a dot com, dot co dot UK, dot EU, dot biz, dot whatever, if it’s serving content to UK residents in the UK, you’ve got to have Age Verification?
Rudd Apsey, DPA
And that’s why, and I’ve spoken on the subject quite a lot in America, that’s why there’s so much interest over there. Because originally, you know, it was all freedom of expression and you know, we’re in America, we can do what we like, we were all making America great again. Well, you can’t, not according to our citizens. It’s OK, if you’re going to trade with us, then these are the terms that you trade off. That’s the sort of principle that we’ve put in place.
The UK Safer Internet Centre is one of 32 centres around the world, David Wright Director of UK SIC discusses the impact of financing.
Okay. Now obviously at the moment we’re dealing with a small issue called Brexit, and so I’m duty bound to ask you if there’s a dependency on EU funding or funding from the European Commission at least: is there an impact of Brexit for you?
So you’re absolutely right, and Brexit is looming large for all of us. So yes, clearly our European Commission and European Union funding is dependent on eligibility and there’s, there’s this whole series of unknowns. I would point out that there’s 32 Centres and there’s currently 28 member states, so the network is a little broader than merely the European Union. But then that’s going to be down to the agreements between different countries and the European Commission about membership.
So there’s a lot of conversation going on with UK government and various different departments around this, whether that’s routed via European Union or indeed some of the public service and the public good that we operate. So some of the activities, the resources, the services, lots of them for example the Helpline is there to support those public service and public work for Children’s workforce around online safety issues. So there are lots of unknowns, although I hope that we get some clarity at some point soon around what’s going to happen to the future.
Will Gardner CEO of Childnet International candidly says he doesn’t know the impact of Brexit and why we need an international response to the borderless internet.
You mentioned that this project was at least part funded by the EU, and we cannot avoid the topic of Brexit. It does pop up in these podcasts and the reason for that is because there are a lot of organisations that are dependent on EU funding but also so there are EU-wide regulations as well, so it does impact safeguarding our children online. Do you see there’s an issue here or is everything going to be okay?
Will Gardner, Childnet International
Well, if you’re asking me what’s going happen with Brexit I’m going to happily say, “I don’t know”, like everybody else. I don’t know what’s going to happen with Brexit, but what I can say is the EU has been really important in relation to online safety in the whole area, whether that be for hotlines, for helplines, for awareness centres, the network of National Safer Internet Centres that we have across the EU, and as you know Childnet is part of the UK Safer Internet Centre. The EU has been really important.
The Internet is one of those things like climate, as I said before, it doesn’t respect borders in that way and we do need to have that international cooperation to make a better response in relation to this and learn from each other’s experience. So the EU has been a really significant player and a significant funder in this space for the last 20 years.
Some areas of the work that we’re doing, we know the Government is looking to guarantee going forward. So the UK Safer Internet Centre, a project which we haven’t spoken about yet, the Government has said that they will guarantee that project. For all the Safer Internet Centres and all the different EU countries, we are currently on a project cycle that ends at the end of 2020 and we’re waiting to see what happens after 2020. The expectation is there’ll be a continuation of the program and as partners of the UK Safer Internet Centre, we’re absolutely committed to seeing what we can do, whether we are in the EU or not in the EU, of carrying on that input and cooperation, as the UK is a really important part of that network and a community of people who are active in trying to support children, young people in that space.
The most senior politician I spoke to was Baroness Sal Brinton, President of the Liberal Democrats.
There are three [safeguarding] areas as far as I can see that might be impacted by Brexit. One is legislation, the other is finance, and the other is information.
So outside of the EU we will be treated by the remaining EU members as a Third Country.
Baroness Sal Brinton, President Liberal Democrats
In the event of the no deal Brexit.
Yes, in the event of a no-deal Brexit. So worst case scenario, I think most people think a no deal Brexit is a worst case scenario although that’s up for debate I’m sure. But outside of the EU, what will our influence be on legislation, for example, that affects safeguarding?
How will financing of safeguarding organizations such as the IWF be affected and what impact will it have on information flows, for example, with the Radicalization Awareness Network?
Baroness Sal Brinton
So I think the first thing to say is that at first look, you would think there wasn’t any impact at all of Brexit. I think my perspective is the chaos that we have in Parliament in trying to translate everything that’s currently in EU legislation, into laws in this country to make sure that we don’t inadvertently end up with a hole somewhere in the system.
So the current bullying legislation is UK legislation, but most of the social media legislation and the way social media companies have bases in the EU means they have to follow EU law. We need to make sure that regulations that relate to those are translated back into UK law as well.
In terms of our relationships elsewhere, I think the big thing that my colleagues talk about is the European Arrest Warrant, where at the moment being part of the EU, it becomes very easy if you have somebody who, whether they’ve committed a crime in the UK or if they’ve done some cyberbullying or cyber-crime on young people in this country, but they live abroad, we have the power to be able to get them straight back through the European Arrest Warrant without having to go through very slow and long extradition processes that we have to use with other countries.
And I think we’re very concerned that whatever the relationship is, if Brexit happens, we need to replicate that somewhere. The problem is that once you’re out of the club of the EU, we’re knocking at the door asking for some special treatment. So we need to make sure that that remains a priority.
Organizations like the Internet Watch Foundation, and I actually went to see it about six months after it was first founded just outside Cambridge. And it has just grown from the original idea by the founder Peter Daw into a fantastic international-focused organization that has influence everywhere. I don’t think Brexit in itself would change the role of organizations like the IWF, but if we are tying ourselves up in knots in Parliament with regulations and legislation, it becomes quite difficult to pick up if there is a problem because of a trade treaty with another country, that might mean that we couldn’t access social media companies.
Now I’ve picked that up completely out of the air. I’m not saying it’s likely to happen at all, but those are the sort of practical things that we politicians are trying to think about in every area of our lives.
Yes. When I spoke with Susie Hargraves the CEO of the IWF, she expressed some concern about funding in particular because the IWF is a fantastic organization and it has grown, and it does have the influence you say on an international scale, its revenue is still only around 2 million quid.
Baroness Sal Brinton
It’s tiny, for what it does it’s tiny. It’s extraordinary.
Yes, it is very cost effective. However, they get £400,000 or £500,000 from the EU. Now I’m sure if you were Nigel Farage he would say, well, it our money anyway. All it’s doing is going over to the EU and coming back again, and what I’m saying is we will cut that out. We can give that money directly to the IWF. Is that likely to happen? Is that true?
Baroness Sal Brinton
I think that’s a very simplistic approach and I’m going to get very “Brexity”, so I apologize. The problem with the idea that all the money we currently pay into the EU suddenly being free for us to spend in another way, doesn’t recognize that most of it comes back. So for example that famous red bus with a £350 million a week for the NHS, actually that money is currently coming back to support farmers, it supports fisherman, it supports social projects, it supports organizations like the IWF and we can only spend that money once.
So there is an issue about whether that funding would be there. And I’ll be honest with you, in the current fiscal climate, I would be extremely concerned about whether it could be replicated.
So I think the only argument I would make in an attempt to be helpful to the IWF is if we felt that was happening and they were doing work for the EU, I would hope that the EU would then make them a separate grant that was outside the UK, not to do with delivery of the IWF in the UK, but if the EU really thought that was important, they might want to come back to these experts. The difficulty, as we know with many other European organizations is that as we’re stepping back, other countries in the EU are picking up those grants, setting up those organizations themselves. So we might end up having a problem. I hope not. I really hope not.
The issue of scale is also important here because as a member of the EU, we are in a zone of half a billion people. And when it comes to some protections for children online, scale is important because if you take some technology, for example, artificial intelligence which could be used in some cases to help safeguard children, that needs scale to be effective. If we are withdrawing from this pool of half a billion people and we become an island of 70 million, then those kinds of things won’t be as effective.
Baroness Sal Brinton
You’re absolutely spot on. And I always say one of my first answers when someone says why should we be in the EU is that there are certain things that don’t stop at our shores and climate change is one of them and the environment. But of course the other is our online life. So this is absolutely smack in that area and we do know that people from abroad are as likely to try and groom our children online. All of those things. So thinking that we are going to handle this just as the UK on our own means that we are ignoring the risks and threats elsewhere.
When it comes to legislation, GDPR for example, is a European-wide piece of legislation that is all about protecting our privacy, but it’s having an international effect. We can see that even West coast American social media companies are having to react. In fact, I was doing some research this morning and tried to follow a news item to an American site which was about cyberbullying. There was an article about cyberbullying because some legislation or proposed legislation to make cyberbullying illegal in one of the States was shut down. The legislation didn’t make it through and I couldn’t read the article. I got a message on the site saying “Our content isn’t available for people in the EU whilst we trying to figure out privacy issues”. If we extract ourselves from the EU, we are nonetheless going to have to follow any similar EU legislation. But we won’t be at the table to negotiate..
Baroness Sal Brinton
Absolutely right. Absolutely right.
So how does this help improve safeguarding our children?
Baroness Sal Brinton
Well, I am a Remainer, an unashamed Remainer. And my argument is it doesn’t, and it might leave us at risk. But I’m also a realist. And if we do leave, I hope we don’t, but if we do leave the EU, I will be fighting to make sure that those regulations are replicated in UK legislation. And GDPR is an absolute case in point.
But one of the other things, I mean I again comment on this quite often, is we talk about things like GDPR. We also complain about the fact that Facebook and Google don’t taxes in the UK or Amazon, I’ll tell you what. The EU has made them pay taxes. They’re the ones who’ve held them to account because its 28 member States come together to say there shall be some tax at that level. And that’s been extremely powerful running alongside GDPR and I would regret us not being directly part of that family to be able to negotiate.
Now there’s a whole range of Brexit, from staying in, to being a preferred third country where we have a customs union and a single market, right the way through to a no deal Brexit and our relationship with the EU will change on that sliding scale completely within that. After the referendum, the Government said we will replicate all regulations from the EU into UK law and then at our leisure we can change them if we want. Some of that is happening. I think we said there were about 8,000 pieces of legislation that we need to do, and I think we might’ve got to a thousand so far, three years on. We are way, way, way behind, which is why very many of us are very concerned wherever you stand on the Brexit-EU scale about crashing out.
Well that’s an interesting point. We’re drifting slightly away from safeguarding children online. But it is an interesting point. We’ve got this supposedly hard-stop in October, the end of October, and we are one eighth of the way through all of this legislation, then… what happens?
Baroness Sal Brinton
Everybody thinks we’re just going leave at the end of October and that’s it. Everybody in Parliament knows there is at least a two year, probably three year, probably five year realistic transition to make all this work. And that’s the debate that hasn’t yet started.
So at the moment they are only debating and talking about the Withdrawal Agreement, but it’s the arrangements afterwards that still have to go through. So I’m very sorry to say if you thought Brexit was going to stop in whatever direction you want it to go, think it won’t.
And somewhere in all of this, children are being lost.
Baroness Sal Brinton
Yes. And that’s the real worry because cyberbullying in particular has no country boundaries, and therefore we have to make sure that whatever happens after the 31st of October, our children are properly protected.
So what can we conclude from all of this? I think Will Gardner expressed it most clearly – we simply don’t know what the impact of Brexit will be on the safeguarding of children online. What can we do about this? Well, as we work through the thousands of pieces of legislation Sal Briton referred to then perhaps irrespective of which side of the Brexit debate you are on, it would be a good thing to put pressure on your MP, irrespective of what side of the Brexit debate that they are on, because the issue of online child safety transcends everything.