Can we really ‘reset the internet’ to make it safer for children?

Can we really ‘reset the internet’ to make it safer for children?

“A major reset of the internet to make it safer” is how Ofcom’s Gill Whitehead described the communications watchdog’s child safety announcement to me.

But can it really make a big difference in the protection of children online?

Turning off the faulty technology then turning it back on is a tried and trusted solution, but “resetting the mesh” is more challenging.

First of all, consider the scale of the task: while the focus is on the biggest and riskiest social media firms, over 150,000 services fall under the Online Safety Act, Ofcom’s new law must be enforced.

What is the Online Safety Act and how can you keep children safe online?
According to Ms. Whitehead, big tech firms are already taking action.

He pointed to steps by Facebook and Instagram owner Meta to combat grooming, and steps taken by streaming site Twitch, which is owned by Amazon, to stop underage users viewing “mature” content.

But the problem is broader than that.

Internet Matters, which provides advice on online safety, has just published research which suggests one in seven teenagers aged 16 and under have experienced some form of image-based sexual abuse, with more than half saying that a young person they know is to blame. .

And it will be the second half of 2025 before the new rules come into force – child safety campaigners say that’s not fast enough, and the move doesn’t go far enough.

And remember, this announcement is a consultation, which may be an exchange between regulators, tech firms, experts, parents and various passionate activist groups.

Age check
Among the 40 practical measures in the draft Child Safety Code of Practice, some will be controversial.

One area of contention is how tech firms check whether their users are children, and if they are, that they are old enough to use the service.

Regulators call this “age guarantee”. It doesn’t say exactly how this must be done – but it’s clear that just checking a box or entering a date of birth won’t do.

It has previously proposed technology that scans a user’s face and uses artificial intelligence to estimate an acceptable age, if used in conjunction with a request for proof of age.

But age checks could mean tens of millions of UK social media users, mostly adults, giving information to tech firms – or third-party age-checking businesses.

Privacy campaigners have already rejected this. Jim Killock, digital rights campaigner for the Open Rights Group, wrote:

“Adults will be faced with a choice: either limit their freedom of expression by not accessing content, or expose themselves to increased security risks that will arise from data breaches and phishing sites”.

But some third-party age-checking firms disagree, with Yoti chief Robin Tombs telling the BBC its system can check people’s ages “without sharing any details of their identity with the website or app they’re trying to access”.

The new system also tries to protect itself from obvious work, such as using photos of older people, by checking for “life”.

But some think age checks would be counterproductive.

“The worst thing is to say to young people ‘you can’t see this’,” University of Surrey professor Alan Woodward told the BBC.

“They will find a way around it, whether it’s using a VPN (virtual private network) to go through a route that doesn’t require it or where they can sign up with someone else’s details.”
While he supports stopping children from viewing some content, he worries that some people may respond by seeking out the dark corners of the internet where age checks are not enforced.

And Ofcom’s own data suggests a large number of parents may be complicit in allowing minors to use social media sites below the minimum age.

For example, a parent or older sibling opening an account that the child then uses will be more difficult to control.

Meta boss Mark Zuckerberg has previously argued that he would prefer to create app stores, like those run by Apple and Google, instead of age checks – but this important gatekeeper is not covered by the consultation.

Ofcom told me that it was will consult on the role of app stores in child protection, and the government will have the power to introduce new duties for app stores if the report suggests that it is necessary.

But that won’t happen until 2026.

Additional encryption
Another controversial issue in the net reset is the growing use of end-to-end encryption.

This technology means that only the sender and recipient can read messages, view media or listen to phone calls – not even app makers can access the content.

Campaigners argue that technology makes it harder for big firms to spot child abuse on their platforms when messages are protected by security that, by design, the platforms themselves cannot break.

Ofcom has the power to force companies to scan for child sexual abuse years before it sets out how it expects to use this power.

Some encrypted services such as Signal and WhatsApp have stated that they will not comply with any measures that weaken the security and privacy of their systems.

WhatsApp’s owner, Meta, said it would expand the use of end-to-end encryption on its platform – a decision that many children’s charities and the government did not like.

It is not clear how operators of encrypted services can prevent teenage users from viewing other types of highly dangerous content, while maintaining the security and privacy of their services.

But if a tech firm fails, the message from the watchdog is clear – the consequences will be serious, both in the cost of attractive fines for the firm, and in the cost of children’s mental health and well-being.

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