All posts in “jeremy wright”

Dating apps face questions over age checks after report exposes child abuse

The UK government has said it could legislate to require age verification checks on users of dating apps, following an investigation into underage use of dating apps published by the Sunday Times yesterday.

The newspaper found more than 30 cases of child rape have been investigated by police related to use of dating apps including Grindr and Tinder since 2015. It reports that one 13-year-old boy with a profile on the Grindr app was raped or abused by at least 21 men. 

The Sunday Times also found 60 further instances of child sex offences related to the use of online dating services — including grooming, kidnapping and violent assault, according to the BBC, which covered the report.

The youngest victim is reported to have been just eight years old. The newspaper obtaining the data via freedom of information requests to UK police forces.

Responding to the Sunday Times’ investigation, a Tinder spokesperson told the BBC it uses automated and manual tools, and spends “millions of dollars annually”, to prevent and remove underage users and other inappropriate behaviour, saying it does not want minors on the platform.

Grindr also reacting to the report, providing the Times with a statement saying: “Any account of sexual abuse or other illegal behaviour is troubling to us as well as a clear violation of our terms of service. Our team is constantly working to improve our digital and human screening tools to prevent and remove improper underage use of our app.”

We’ve also reached out to the companies with additional questions.

The UK’s secretary of state for digital, media, culture and sport (DCMS), Jeremy Wright, dubbed the newspaper’s investigation “truly shocking”, describing it as further evidence that “online tech firms must do more to protect children”.

He also suggested the government could expand forthcoming age verification checks for accessing pornography to include dating apps — saying he would write to the dating app companies to ask “what measures they have in place to keep children safe from harm, including verifying their age”.

“If I’m not satisfied with their response, I reserve the right to take further action,” he added.

Age verification checks for viewing online porn are due to come into force in the UK in April, as part of the Digital Economy Act.

Those age checks, which are clearly not without controversy given the huge privacy considerations of creating a database of adult identities linked to porn viewing habits, have also been driven by concern about children’s exposure to graphic content online.

Last year the UK government committed to legislating on social media safety too, although it has yet to set out the detail of its policy plans. But a white paper is due imminently.

A parliamentary committee which reported last week urged the government to put a legal ‘duty of care’ on platforms to protect minors.

It also called for more robust systems for age verification. So it remains at least a possibility that some types of social media content could be age-gated in the country in future.

Last month the BBC reported on the death of a 14-year-old schoolgirl who killed herself in 2017 after being exposed to self-harm imagery on the platform.

Following the report, Instagram’s boss met with Wright and the UK’s health secretary, Matt Hancock, to discuss concerns about the impact of suicide-related content circulating on the platform.

After the meeting Instagram announced it would ban graphic images of self-harm last week.

Earlier the same week the company responded to the public outcry over the story by saying it would no longer allow suicide related content to be promoted via its recommendation algorithms or surfaced via hashtags.

Also last week, the government’s chief medical advisors called for a code of conduct for social media platforms to protect vulnerable users.

The medical experts also called for greater transparency from platform giants to support public interest-based research into the potential mental health impacts of their platforms.

Fake news ‘threat to democracy’ report gets back-burner response from UK gov’t

The UK government has rejected a parliamentary committee’s call for a levy on social media firms to fund digital literacy lessons to combat the impact of disinformation online.

The recommendation of a levy on social media platforms was made by the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport committee three months ago, in a preliminary report following a multi-month investigation into the impact of so-called ‘fake news’ on democratic processes.

Though it has suggested the terms ‘misinformation’ and ‘disinformation’ be used instead, to better pin down exact types of problematic inauthentic content — and on that at least the government agrees. But just not on very much else. At least not yet.

Among around 50 policy suggestions in the interim report — which the committee put out quickly exactly to call for “urgent action” to ‘defend democracy’ — it urged the government to put forward proposals for an education levy on social media.

But in its response, released by the committee today, the government writes that it is “continuing to build the evidence base on a social media levy to inform our approach in this area”.

“We are aware that companies and charities are undertaking a wide range of work to tackle online harms and would want to ensure we do not negatively impact existing work,” it adds, suggesting it’s most keen not to be accused of making a tricky problem worse.

Earlier this year the government did announce plans to set up a dedicated national security unit to combat state-led disinformation campaigns, with the unit expected to monitor social media platforms to support faster debunking of online fakes — by being able to react more quickly to co-ordinated interference efforts by foreign states.

But going a step further and requiring social media platforms themselves to pay a levy to fund domestic education programs — to arm citizens with critical thinking capabilities so people can more intelligently parse content being algorithmically pushed at them — is not, apparently, forming part of government’s current thinking.

Though it is not taking the idea of some form of future social media tax off the table entirely, as it continues seeking ways to make big tech pay a fairer share of earnings into the public purse, also noting in its response: “We will be considering any levy in the context of existing work being led by HM Treasury in relation to corporate tax and the digital economy.”

As a whole, the government’s response to the DCMS committee’s laundry list of policy recommendations around the democratic risks of online disinformation can be summed up in a word as ‘cautious’ — with only three of the report’s forty-two recommendations being accepted outright, as the committee tells it, and four fully rejected.

Most of the rest are being filed under ‘come back later — we’re still looking into it’.

So if you take the view that ‘fake news’ online has already had a tangible and worrying impact on democratic debate the government’s response will come across as underwhelming and lacking in critical urgency. (Though it’s hardly alone on that front.)

The committee has reacted with disappointment — with chair Damian Collins dubbing the government response “disappointing and a missed opportunity”, and also accusing ministers of hiding behind ‘ongoing investigations’ to avoid commenting on the committee’s call that the UK’s National Crime Agency urgently carry out its own investigation into “allegations involving a number of companies”.

Earlier this month Collins also called for the Met Police to explain why they had not opened an investigation into Brexit-related campaign spending breaches.

It has also this month emerged that the force will not examine claims of Russian meddling in the referendum.

Meanwhile the political circus and business uncertainty triggered by the Brexit vote goes on.

Holding pattern

The bulk of the government’s response to the DCMS interim report entails flagging a number of existing and/or ongoing consultations and reviews — such as the ‘Protecting the Debate: Intimidating, Influence and Information‘ consultation, which it launched this summer.

But by saying it’s continuing to gather evidence on a number of fronts the government is also saying it does not feel it’s necessary to rush through any regulatory responses to technology-accelerated, socially divisive/politically sensitive viral nonsense — claiming also that it hasn’t seen any evidence that malicious misinformation has been able to skew genuine democratic debate on the domestic front.

It’ll be music to Facebook’s ears given the awkward scrutiny the company has faced from lawmakers at home and, indeed, elsewhere in Europe — in the wake of a major data misuse scandal with a deeply political angle.

The government also points multiple times to a forthcoming oversight body which is in the process of being established — aka the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation — saying it expects this to grapple with a number of the issues of concern raised by the committee, such as ad transparency and targeting; and to work towards agreeing best practices in areas such as “targeting, fairness, transparency and liability around the use of algorithms and data-driven technologies”.

Identifying “potential new regulations” is another stated role for the future body. Though given it’s not yet actively grappling with any of these issues the UK’s democratically concerned citizens are simply being told to wait.

“The government recognises that as technological advancements are made, and the use of data and AI becomes more complex, our existing governance frameworks may need to be strengthened and updated. That is why we are setting up the Centre,” the government writes, still apparently questioning whether legislative updates are needed — this in a response to the committee’s call, informed by its close questioning of tech firms and data experts, for an oversight body to be able to audit “non-financial” aspects of technology companies (including security mechanism and algorithms) to “ensure they are operating responsibly”.

“As set out in the recent consultation on the Centre, we expect it to look closely at issues around the use of algorithms, such as fairness, transparency, and targeting,” the government continues, noting that details of the body’s initial work program will be published in the fall — when it says it will also put out its response to the aforementioned consultation.

It does not specify when the ethics body will be in any kind of position to hit this shifty ground running. So again there’s zero sense the government intends to act at a pace commensurate with the fast-changing technologies in question.

Then, where the committee’s recommendations touch on the work of existing UK oversight bodies, such as Competition and Markets Authority, the ICO data watchdog, the Electoral Commission and the National Crime Agency, the government dodges specific concerns by suggesting it’s not appropriate for it to comment “on independent bodies or ongoing investigations”.

Also notable: It continues to reject entirely the idea that Russian-backed disinformation campaigns have had any impact on domestic democratic processes at all — despite public remarks by prime minister Theresa May  last year generally attacking Putin for weaponizing disinformation for election interference purposes.

Instead it writes:

We want to reiterate, however, that the Government has not seen evidence of successful use of disinformation by foreign actors, including Russia, to influence UK democratic processes. But we are not being complacent and the Government is actively engaging with partners to develop robust policies to tackle this issue.

Its response on this point also makes no reference of the extensive use of social media platforms to run political ads targeting the 2016 Brexit referendum.

Nor does it make any note of the historic lack of transparency of such ad platforms. Which means that it’s simply not possible to determine where all the ad money came from to fund digital campaigning on domestic issues — with Facebook only just launching a public repository of who is paying for political ads and badging them as such in the UK, for example.

The elephant in the room is of course that ‘lack of evidence’ is not necessarily evidence of a lack of success, especially when it’s so hard to extract data from opaque adtech platforms in the first place.

Moreover, just this week fresh concerns have been raised about how platforms like Facebook are still enabling dark ads to target political messages at citizens — without it being transparently clear who is actually behind and paying for such campaigns…

In turn triggering calls from opposition MPs for updates to UK election law…

Yet the government, busily embroiled as it still is with trying to deliver some kind of Brexit outcome, is seemingly unconcerned by all this unregulated, background ongoing political advertising.

It also directly brushes off the committee’s call for it to state how many investigations are currently being carried out into Russian interference in UK politics, saying only that it has taken steps to ensure there is a “coordinated structure across all relevant UK authorities to defend against hostile foreign interference in British politics, whether from Russia or any other State”, before reiterating: “There has, however, been no evidence to date of any successful foreign interference.”

This summer the Electoral Commission found that the official Vote Leave campaign in the UK’s in/out EU referendum had broken campaign spending rules — with social media platforms being repurposed as the unregulated playing field where election law could be diddled at such scale. That much is clear.

The DCMS committee had backed the Commission’s call for digital imprint requirements for electronic campaigns to level the playing field between digital and print ads.

However the government has failed to back even that pretty uncontroversial call, merely pointing again to a public consultation (which ends today) on proposed changes to electoral law. So it’s yet more wait and see.

The committee is also disappointed about the lack of government response to its call for the Commission to establish a code for advertising through social media during election periods; and its recommendation that “Facebook and other platforms take responsibility for the way their platforms are used” — noting also the government made “no response to Facebook’s failure to respond adequately to the Committee’s inquiry and Mark Zuckerberg’s reluctance to appear as a witness“. (A reluctance that really enraged the committee.)

In a statement on the government’s response, committee chair Damian Collins writes: “The government’s response to our interim report on disinformation and ‘fake news’ is disappointing and a missed opportunity. It uses other ongoing investigations to further delay desperately needed announcements on the ongoing issues of harmful and misleading content being spread through social media.

“We need to see a more coordinated approach across government to combat campaigns of disinformation being organised by Russian agencies seeking to disrupt and undermine our democracy. The government’s response gives us no real indication of what action is being taken on this important issue.”

Collins finds one slender crumb of comfort, though, that the government might have some appetite to rule big tech.

After the committee had called for government to “demonstrate how seriously it takes Facebook’s apparent collusion in spreading disinformation in Burma, at the earliest opportunity”, the government writes that it: “has made it clear to Facebook, and other social media companies, that they must do more to remove illegal and harmful content”; and noting also that its forthcoming Online Harms White Paper will include “a range of policies to tackle harmful content”.

“We welcome though the strong words from the Government in its demand for action by Facebook to tackle the hate speech that has contributed to the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya in Burma,” notes Collins, adding: “We will be looking for the government to make progress on these and other areas in response to our final report which will be published in December.

“We will also be raising these issues with the Secretary of State for DCMS, Jeremy Wright, when he gives evidence to the Committee on Wednesday this week.”

(Wright being the new minister in charge of the UK’s digital brief, after Matt Hancock moved over to health.)

We’ve reached out to Facebook for comment on the government’s call for a more robust approach to illegal hate speech.

Last week the company announced it had hired former UK deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, to be its new head of global policy and comms — apparently signalling a willingness to pay a bit more attention to European regulators.

UK sets out plan to spend billions on fiber and 5G broadband for all

The UK government has set out a package of measures it’s hoping will futureproof domestic networks and boost international competitiveness by supporting a nationwide rollout of full fiber broadband and 5G mobile technology.

The Future Telecoms Infrastructure Review, published today, follows the announcement of a market review last year as part of the government’s Industrial Strategy as it seeks to chart a technology-enabled course for growth and competitiveness.

Yet, at the same time, the UK seriously lags several European competitors on the fiber broadband front — so the strategy is also intended to try to reboot current poor performance.

The government says its telecoms plan emphasizes greater consumer choice and initiatives to promote quicker rollout — and an eventual full switch over — from copper to fiber.

It wants full fibre broadband to reach 15 million premises (up from the ’10M over the next decade’ set out in the Conservative party manifesto) by 2025, and also 5G mobile network coverage to reach the majority of the population.

By 2033, it wants full fiber broadband coverage to reach across all of the UK.

Currently the UK only has 4% full fiber connections, which compares dismally to 71% in Spain and 89% in Portugal. While France has around 28% — which the government notes is “increasing quickly”.

Included in the government’s strategy is public investment in full fiber for rural areas; and new legislation to guarantee full fiber connections in new build developments; as well as a series of regulatory reforms intended to drive investment and competition — which it says will be tailored to different local market conditions.

It’s also planning for an industry-led switch over from copper to full fiber — to avoid businesses being saddled with the expense and burden of running copper and fiber networks in parallel.

There’s no fixed timing for this, as the government says it will depend on the pace of fiber rollouts and take-up, but it suggests it’s “realistic to assume that switchover could happen in the majority of the country by 2030”.

To boost competition to drive commercial fiber rollouts, the government is proposing regulatory reform to allow for “unrestricted access” to BT Openreach ducts and poles — i.e. the company’s own physical infrastructure where fiber can be laid — for both residential and business broadband use, including for essential mobile infrastructure.

It also wants to open up other avenues for laying broadband fiber, saying other existing infrastructure (including pipes and sewers) owned by other utilities such as power, gas and water, should be “easy to access, and available for both fixed and mobile use”. 

And it says it will shortly publish consultations on the proposed legislative changes to streamline wayleaves and mandate fiber connections in new builds.

Another key recommendation in the review, given that the expense of digs to lay fiber remains one of the biggest barriers to broadband upgrades, is for a new nationwide framework aimed at reducing the costs, time and disruption caused by street-works by standardising the approach across the country.

With its planned regulatory tweaks, the government reckons that market competition will be able to deliver full fiber networks across the majority of the UK (~80%) — leaving around ~20% which it’s expecting will require “bespoke solutions to ensure rollout of networks”. And for around half of that fifth it also expects taxpayer funding will be needed to deliver a fiber/5G upgrade.

It estimates that nationwide availability of ‘full fiber’ is likely to require additional (public) funding of around £3BN to £5BN to support commercial investment in the final ~10% of areas that would otherwise be overlooked — stressing that these “often rural areas must not be forced to wait until the rest of the country has connectivity before they can access gigabit-capable networks”.

So it’s planning to pursue an “outside-in” strategy, allowing network competition to serves commercially viable areas while laying down government support investment in parallel on what it describes as “the most difficult to reach areas”.

“We have already identified around £200M within the existing Superfast broadband programme that can further the delivery of full fibre networks immediately,” it notes on that.

Although it’s not clear at this stage how the government intends to fund the full proposals for a taxpayer-funded broadband bill running to multiple billions.

On the mobile connectivity front, it’s proposing increased access to spectrum for “innovative 5G services”, and says it will allow mobile network operators to make far greater use of government buildings to boost coverage across the UK.

“We should consider whether more flexible, shared spectrum models can maintain network competition between MNOs while also increasing access to spectrum to support new investment models, spurring innovation in industrial internet of things, wireless automation and robotics, and improving rural coverage,” it writes on that.

Over the longer term it says is expecting to see a more converged telecoms sector — so it’s leaving itself some ‘last mile’ wiggle room on the ‘full fiber’ push, for example by pointing out that: “Fixed fibre networks and 5G are complementary technologies, and 5G will require dense fibre networks. In some places, 5G may provide a more cost-effective way of providing ultra-fast connectivity to homes and businesses.”

“We want everyone in the UK to benefit from world-class connectivity no matter where they live, work or travel,” said the new Secretary of State for digital, culture, media and sport, Jeremy Wright, commenting on the review in a statement, and dubbing it a “radical new blueprint for the future of telecommunications in this country”.

“[The strategy] will increase competition and investment in full fiber broadband, create more commercial opportunities and make it easier and cheaper to roll out infrastructure for 5G,” he added.

The UK’s incumbent telco, BT, which owns and operates the country’s largest broadband network, has long pursued the opposite strategy to the one the government is here pursuing: i.e. by seeking to eke out its own ex-monopoly copper infrastructure, such as by applying technologies that speed up fiber to the cabinet technology, instead of making the major financial commitment to invest in substantially expanding full fiber to the home coverage (and thereby futureproof national network infrastructure).

For years competitors (and, indeed, frustrated consumers) have also accused the company of foot-dragging on providing access to its network — thereby undermining other commercial players’ ability to fund and build out next-gen network coverage.

Last year BT agreed with telecoms watchdog Ofcom to legally separate its network division Openreach — around a decade after a functional separation has been imposed by the regulator. Albeit, it’s still not the full structural separation some have called for.

“It is too early to determine whether legal separation will be sufficient to deliver positive changes on investment in full fibre infrastructure,” writes the government in its review, adding that it will “closely monitor legal separation, including Ofcom’s reports on the effectiveness of the new arrangements”.

“The Government will consider all additional measures if BT Group fails to deliver its commitments and regulatory obligations, and if Openreach does not deliver on its purpose of investing in ways that respond to the needs of its downstream customers,” it adds.

One aspect of the strategy the government is not trumpeting quite so loudly in its PR around the announcement is an intent to promote what it describes as “stable and long-term regulation” as part of its strategy to drive increased competition and unlock business investments.

On this it writes that the overarching strategic priority to “promote efficient competition and investment in world-class digital networks” should be “prioritised over interventions to further reduce retail prices in the near term, recognising these longer-term benefits”.

In the review it suggests moving to longer, five year review periods, for instance — saying this “could provide greater regulatory stability and promote investment”. It also writes that it wants Ofcom to publish guidance that “clearly sets out the approach and information it will use in determining a ‘fair bet’ return”.

It’s therefore possible that UK consumers could end up paying twice over to help fund national fiber broadband infrastructure upgrades; i.e. not just via direct subsidies to fund rural rollouts but also, potentially, via higher broadband prices too. Albeit, the government says that in its view “the interests of consumers are safeguarded as fiber markets become more competitive”.

Though in less commercially attractive areas, where there could be a greater risk of price inflation, the government’s small print does include the recognition that regulatory interventions — such as price controls — may indeed be required. Though of course any such controls would only come in after consumers had been being stung…

“For areas where there is actual or prospective effective competition between networks, Government would not anticipate the need for regulation,” it writes. “For other areas, we would expect the regulatory model for to evolve over time as networks are established. If market power emerges, regulated access (including price controls) may be needed to address competition concerns. These detailed regulatory decisions will be for Ofcom to take.”