The web is broken. For all the marvels the internet brings, its darker side is also unfortunately ever-present.
Almost half of children have seen harmful content online, including material promoting self-harm and suicide, and over a third of young people report being cyberbullied, with a fifth skipping school as a result. Time and time again the headlines shine a light on the harms social media is inflicting on children.
To build a safer and healthier online experience for children, regulation is crucial. The Online Safety Bill, which passed the House of Lords yesterday, has received scathing criticism from the tech giants and digital rights groups who say it threatens to erode internet users’ privacy. But these complaints are born of self-interest, not the public interest: the Bill is a good first step towards the Government’s goal to make the UK “the safest place in the world to be online”.
Politicians, officials and campaigners from around the world are watching the British experience with interest. Globally, governments and regulators are grappling with the same tangle of problems and dilemmas. How to keep the internet safe for kids, how to protect the privacy and data of all users of all ages, how to moderate content, and how to enforce restrictions – without destroying the freedom, privacy and security that make the internet work.
But is it really a question of protecting civil liberties versus protecting children? We can and should have both. The answer lies in how technology works for society – and changing the way the social media companies operate.
We need to start by rethinking the technology much of today’s internet is built on. The current internet fuels the megalomania of big tech and the social media companies that seek to monetise individuals and their personal data. This – not regulation – is what erodes our civil liberties. It is written to get us hooked, to polarise and inflame, and to sell our attention for the highest price.
If the consequence is a terrorist communicating freely, a child abuser planning their crimes uninterrupted, or a schoolgirl learning how to self-harm and even commit suicide, it is of little importance to these companies. And what’s worse, again and again platforms have failed to moderate themselves and adequately protect their users.
We need a new model – an open internet where people are put first, not profit. This involves moving away from the closed and centralised “walled gardens” built by today’s social media companies which allows – allowing them to hoard your data, use their algorithms against you, and keep you hooked to your phone. We need to adopt decentralised protocols that give users greater control over their online experience and how their data is used.
Core to this new model are new innovative technologies, and one of them is a new open source internet protocol, the Decentralised Social Networking Protocol (DSNP), which is built in collaboration with partners around the world, that gives users ownership and control of their personal data and social graph. Social media apps built on this protocol give users control over their own data, including what they see, who they interact with and allowing them to transfer their followers and data to other platforms without losing access to their content.
86% of UK internet users want more control over the personal information they give companies, and only 36% of the UK public trust social media companies to act in their best interest. DSNP turns the tables on social media platforms, ending the days of users being the product and instead putting them in control and giving them a greater say of how their data is used. Platforms built using decentralised models give parents the control and safeguards to protect their children – without eroding privacy for all.
Alongside new regulations - and institutions charged with making sure they are enforced, like Ofcom, with new innovative technologies we have the solutions to build a better web for all. In an age of generative AI we have seen growing awareness regarding the importance of data privacy and online safety. The time to start bringing about this change is now.
Driven by concern about online bullying, serious online criminality and tragic cases such as the death of Molly Russell, public pressure for change is mounting. With the Online Safety Bill, Britain is responding to these calls. The technology exists to go further and make the web a safer, better place for all of us.
-Martina Larkin, CEO, Project Liberty