“No one in the world has done this before,” Jeremy Wright, secretary of state for digital, culture, media and sport, said of the government’s newly launched internet regulations. “And it’s important that we get it right.” Perhaps because Wright has kept a low profile in the recent, psychedelic months of government, it sounded like the first mature and reasonable thing I had heard from a minister in a long time.
Sajid Javid, meanwhile, gave this pugilistic description of the same white paper: “I’m giving tech companies a message that they cannot ignore. I warned you and you didn’t do enough. It’s not controversial, it’s not authoritarian … right now we’re failing. [Children] leave behind their protection and supervision when they go online to a place that is a hunting ground for monsters.”
Whatever shape they eventually take, these regulations will be without precedent; an attempt even to chart what is said to whom on the internet, let alone control it, sounds naive, hubristic, clumsy. The ills and subtleties of censorship, the scope of politicians to misuse it, these are things we understand very well and rather emotionally, from dystopian literature, from the warnings emitting from the darkest totalitarian points of the past. And while we may be able to see the outlandish results of a vast unobserved space, where people can say whatever they like to whomever they like parading past – 15-year-old schoolgirls going to join Islamic State having seen an online beheading, teenagers lured to their deaths on gaming platforms, suicides resulting from how-to videos – we still lack the hinterland with the web to be able to build rules and principles instinctively, from single events.
The language and demeanour of politicians, in this context, becomes crucial: you might be minded to trust one who’s listening, soberly, but find the language of monsters and the framing of inflated machismo puts the fear of God into you.
The vulnerability of children is another complicating factor: I find the most powerful voice in this debate that of Lorin LaFave, mother of Breck Bednar, who was murdered aged 14, five years ago, by an 18-year-old who groomed him on a gaming platform. LaFave is always measured, never vengeful: online predators, she says, are sneaky, subtle, manipulative and controlling. You can’t expect teenagers to protect themselves, or even parents to protect their teenagers; we’ll only find answers at a community level.
LaFave’s critique of internet platforms is as thoughtful: the problem is the interplay between the police and, say, Snapchat, rather than either entity on its own. The tendency, in this wild west of the internet, is to bat responsibility, so that the blame lands nowhere. Yet, in the process, duty evaporates too. But just because it’s daunting doesn’t mean it’s not the job of government.
It is amazing it has taken this long for such regulations to be considered, even more astonishing that Britain is the first. This is partly because a parallel narrative has grown up, in which you never blame a corporation when there’s an individual you could pin it on – parents should be better at policing their child’s usage. Any ill to befall a kid, whether that’s a teen developing an eating disorder (there is a famously evangelical constituency of users describing how to starve) or driven to despair by cyberbullying, lands straight back with the unfit parent.
Collectively we don’t resist, because it feels spiritually true in the moment, as I discovered when my 11-year-old son encountered someone on Instagram who said something so disgusting and creepy (but no swearing involved and utter deniability) that I can’t repeat it. (OK, I can: it was “How do you think Pikachu likes his neck to be stroked?”) It was an account devoted to Pokemons caught and lost; there were no physical pictures of any children, or indeed adults. This, I discovered later, is a famous entry route for predators looking for children; I blamed myself for not knowing that sooner; and for not observing the lower age limit (12) more strictly. At no point did I think, “The government should be policing this company,” since it would have felt like justifying my own shortcomings.
Yet, in a world which has still to find its patterns and its rules, it wouldn’t be a bad place to start. You wouldn’t let a publisher print everything it was sent, without checking it. Why not? Because they made money from it. In the act of profiting from content, you become responsible for it. Establish that principle, and the regulations will unfold quite naturally.