Can the UK government regulate US-based social networking sites?

Can the UK government regulate US-based social networking sites?

Summary: For some time now, the social networking phenomenon and issues around safety have been very much in the media spot light in my home country, the UK. And the past few weeks have been no different -- except it's the UK government that's been setting the media agenda as it grapples with how to regulate children's use of sites such as Bebo or MySpace, despite that fact that these companies reside outside of the country.

SHARE:

For some time now, the social networking phenomenon and issues around safety - child protection, identity theft etc. - have been very much in the media spot light in my home country, the UK. And the past few weeks have been no different -- except it's the UK government that's been setting the media agenda as it grapples with how to regulate children's use of sites such as Bebo or MySpace (the former of which is especially popular with British teens) despite that fact that these companies reside outside of the country.

First we had the publication of the UK government commissioned Byron report, which mostly focussed on video games (yes, that old chestnut) but also had much to say on online safety for children. Amongst its recommendations was that the government set up a UK Council for Child Internet Safety that would report to the Prime Minister and be charged with drawing up a national strategy for online safety, reports the BBC.

The council will co-ordinate the work of existing bodies who oversee net safety and implement a comprehensive programme that will educate parents about the benefits and dangers of using the net.

Work should also be done to see if there are technical means that can oversee where people go online and warn them about illegal or harmful sites they may visit.

The Byron report also "called for the creation of kitemarked filtering software that is installed on all new PCs sold for use in the home and which is given away with all new net contracts", and that search engines should offering better filtering of results (think: parental settings) and offer advice on child safety.

The UK government has gone on record to accept all of Byron's recommendations and has said it is willing to legislate where necessary.

Next up, OFCOM (the UK government quango charged with regulating the telco and broadcasting industry) published research on children's use of social networking sites. One of the key findings is that 49% of young people in the UK, aged 8-17, have an online profile (the majority of which - 63% - are on Bebo), and that many of these are under the minimum age limit of 13, as laid out by the sites' terms and conditions.

Perhaps as a result of the two reports, the UK government is expected to publish a voluntary set of guidelines entitled 'Good Practice Guidance for the Providers of Social Networking and Other User Interactive Services', which will make recommendations such as "service providers should consider" putting 999 and other emergency numbers on their sites for children to call if they feel in danger, social networking profiles should be set to private by default for children who sign up to the service, and better age verification should be employed (how that would work technically, I'm not sure).

The thing to remember, however, is that the code of conduct will be voluntary, that's because, despite the noises made by the UK government with regards to legislating around the Byron report, all of the big social networking sites used by children in the UK are operated from the US. All the UK government can do, notes the BBC's Rory Cellan-Jones, "is make the mood music change so that it is difficult for the networks to ignore the message that they need to clean up their act."

Cellan-Jones also makes a valid point that advertising targeted at children on social networking sites is another area where the UK government would like to regulate, if it could. On television, control has got tighter with the recent banning of the advertising of junk food, "a move which makes the economics of making commercial television for children very unattractive." But on social networking sites, anything goes.

Cellan-Jones concludes by saying:

The regulators have woken up to this anomaly - but they've realised they can only work through persuasion. When it comes to issues about safety and privacy it looks as though the networks will fall into line. But will they be quite so keen to give up on advertising of fizzy drinks and fast food?

Of course, were the US government to set a similar agenda to the UK, the results could be quite different, since the social networking sites operate from within the White House's back yard.

Topics: Collaboration, Enterprise Software, Government, Government US, Networking, Software, Social Enterprise

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.

Talkback

5 comments
Log in or register to join the discussion
  • More Nanny Society

    It continues to be beyond my ken that the mother country of individual rights is so anxious to wipe them out. Too bad we helped save them from the Nazis - they would have liked their regulated society.
    cekestner
  • Home Office attention welcome but ignorant

    Steve, a good piece. I saw this covered today and my first though was how this could possibly be enforced on non-UK websites. My second thought was whether the same plans would extend to business focused websites such as WeCanDo.BIZ, LinkedIn, Ecademy and the like - adding age verification is going to be a pain, moreso when you consider that kids have zero interest in our sites anyway.

    My third thought was that social networking sites are just one way to interact with strangers. Instant messaging software and e-mail are probably as widely used. And how many kids have mobile phones today? What is the Home Office planning there? A recorded message at the start of every call outlining the dangers of speaking to people you don't know?

    I welcome the Home Secretary's interest in this area, but the planned solution seems a little misguided. I would much rather see Home Office resources used to provide help for parents and schools in ensuring their children are using emerging technologies safely. There is no reason why the possible risks to children need impact anyone else who uses the same technology for entirely legitimate purposes; this will just stifle innovation and put UK-based companies and staff at a disadvantage. Let's reserve the punishment for those who misuse such websites and networks to exploit children, rather than the business innovators.

    Ian Hendry
    www.wecando.biz
    wecandobiz
  • Yes, I think it would be successful for social networking / chat rooms

    Most of the larger US based entities that own the big social networking sites have other business interests in the UK, including UK subsidiaries so I expect legislation would be more effective than you think.

    By the way, we're just about to launch a social networking/chat room site - http://socialbang.com, we are based in the UK so I think I'd better read the the Byron report :)
    seventyforty
  • When they can at least manage a knees up in a brewery

    there might be hope for progress from there ....
    fr0thy2
  • RE: Can the UK government regulate US-based social networking sites?

    Since when is it the responsibility of government to rule what should be the parents job? This is just more and more a socialist movement of people saying that the government knows whats best for you. I just want to know what happened to the England of Mr. Churchill. I am sure he is rolling over in his grave as we speak.
    evilernie67