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

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.
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Written by Steve O'Hear on

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.

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