The bumpy journey to build the digital world children deserve

It’s been five years in the making and the Online Safety Act (OSA) will now become a pillar of UK law, but how easy was it to get children’s safety recognised as an issue? We spoke to the Chair of 5Rights Foundation, Baroness Beeban Kidron, about the sometimes uphill struggle to put basic children’s online safety at the heart of this crucial piece of legislation.

The terms of an Online Safety Bill (OSB) first hit the horizon in 2017, a long time ago. At that time was 5Rights involved in the process?

5Rights was already advocating for regulation of the digital world. At the time that the government announced they would look at it, colleagues and I in the House of Lords were working towards improved privacy for children, which eventually emerged as the Age Appropriate Design Code (AADC). Professor Sonia Livingstone, Gerison Lansdown and I had started advocating for an addendum to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) to make sure children’s rights were applied online equally (passed in 2021 as General comment No. 25). There was also already a small group of people who were pointing at the rising cases of child sexual abuse. But for the most part, many people in and outside Parliament had not properly considered how the digital world was impacting children – and so the then Cameron government were quite visionary in putting forward a proposal to look at the issue properly.

What have been the hurdles over the years to make children’s safety a priority within the Online Safety Act (OSA)?

There was always a clear understanding that children would be central to the act, but it took a long time for all parties to understand the role of product design rather than just looking at the outcome. Among the many stakeholders, 5Rights was unique in trying to get an ‘upstream’ settlement – because of our early work on persuasive designRisky by Design and, of course, the AADC. The 5Rights team really understood that the biggest driver of harm was the way in which behaviour, driven by commercial design choices, ended up with loops of harmful material. So rather than going directly for the material, the OSA needed to make companies responsible for the outcome of their design strategies. That argument went from day one to the final day of the bill’s journey.

There was a lot of partnership-working with organisations who also have a view and responsibility in the space of children’s online safety. What were the challenges in coming to a common consensus?

One of the victories of the OSA is the way that consensus-working made those involved very strong. From my point of view, it was incredible to work with peers across the House of Lords, with officials in the then Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT), and with ministers to get what we needed into the OSA. But all of us inside Parliament recognise the extraordinary work that went on outside Parliament. The Children’s Coalition, Carnegie UK, the extraordinary advocacy of the Bereaved Families for Online Safety – even the media – played a part by taking on our arguments and giving them a public airing. It’s extraordinary that, with such a novel and very controversial bill, we have been able to agree on the fundamentals. And in relation to children, we are not at the end, but this is one small step and a giant leap simultaneously.

There’s been polarisation over the issue of the right to be safe versus freedom of speech and human rights – how did that play out during the OSA and what kind of arguments were you able to use to challenge those notions and bring people around to your way of thinking?

A lot of this goes back to the question of design. Is it okay to design a car with no brakes, have a building used by the public with oil on the steps, or give a child an adult dose of medicine? Of course not. Similarly, if you have products and services that engage with children and young people, they need to consider their presence. In the end, the freedom of speech versus safety argument is left over from when tech was just the pipes – now it is the most personalised, and arguably knowledgeable, system of the user. As the saying goes: they know more about you than you do about yourself. In that context for them to behave as if they don’t know that the user is a child becomes ridiculous. The OSA says: if you know that you are dealing with a child, you must give them age-appropriate care and, if you don’t know, then you either give everyone special care – or find out!

In addition to the above what were the key sticking points that required you and 5Rights to put your shoulder to the wheel?

My role on this bill was very much to work with colleagues to make sure that we spoke as one and make an unarguable case to government from within the chamber. We were helped in that task by the Children’s Coalition – about whom I can’t say enough good things. I also want to commend the 5Rights team for creating and servicing the coalition, and the teams at NSPCC, Barnardo’s and Centre to End All Sexual Exploitation (CEASE) who provided excellent research and briefings and kept the issue forefront of MPs and peers’ minds.

How would you like to see tech companies take responsibility to become models for good practice and, if so, what could that look like in the future?

They have an opportunity to respond to regulation, legislation that is passed – the AADC, the Digital Services Act (DSA) and now the OSA. At the moment, they still talk a good talk; welcoming regulation and then fighting it with all their sinew through the courts. But ultimately, just like the factory acts of the 19th century, or bringing the US rail barons to heel, there will be comprehensive tech regulation and communities across the globe will be better for it – not limited to, but very importantly including children.

The focus now is on ensuring the OSA is implemented so all that hard work doesn’t go to waste. The baton has now been passed to Ofcom – how will you be working with them to continue to ensure children’s rights don’t become eroded further down the line?

My understanding is that Ofcom are putting in place a great deal of consultation opportunities and they will be reaching out to expert organisations. I welcome that and have already written to both Dame Melanie Dawes, CEO of Ofcom, and Michelle Donelan MP, Secretary of State for Science, Innovation and Technology, to say that I stand ready to support any further work that would benefit from my engagement, or that of fellow parliamentarians.

Looking back, in terms of the good, the bad, and the ugly – what (if anything) might you have done differently? Were there any areas that you think could have gone further in making children even safer?

I would have like to have seen the UNCRC cited in the legislation. I would also have liked a less prescriptive organising style for the act – shorter and more outcomes-based – and I would not have restricted it to only social media and search engines. But this is ‘regulation v1.0’ and, as I said, it is a huge step. Today is a day for celebration not wishful thinking. But my job, and 5Rights’ job, is not yet done if our mission is to build the digital world children deserve.

What toll did the OSA take on your personal and professional life?

It was hard work, but I am privileged to have done it.

Baroness Beeban Kidron, and all the 5Rights Foundation team, would like to pay special thanks to all the organisations below (and more) who helped make the Online Safety Act a positive reality for children.

The Bereaved Families for Online Safety
Children’s Charities’ Coalition on Internet Safety (CHIS)
Breck Foundation
National Children’s Bureau
British Youth Council
Ditch the Label
My Life My Say
Children England
The Diana Award
Include Youth
Centre to End All Sexual Exploitation (CEASE)
Internet Watch Foundation (IWF)
Clean Up the Internet
Save the Children
The Children’s Media Foundation
The Children’s Society
Children’s Law Centre
Parenting NI
Every Child Protected Against Trafficking (ECPAT UK)
Molly Rose Foundation
The Student View
Fair Vote UK
The Signals Network
Equality Now
The Lucy Faithfull Foundation
Hacked Off
Coventry Youth Activists
End Violence Against Women
Rt Revd Dr Steven Croft, Bishop of Oxford