Regulating the internet: why we need to “go global” to create a safer internet for all young people


Natalia Greene is PA Consulting’s expert in children’s online safety. In this opinion piece, she explains why internet regulation implemented at the national level could risk making some children safer online at the expense of others, and hence why global internet standards are critical to harnessing the potential for legislation to create a safer internet for young people everywhere.

As the Online Safety Bill moves closer to becoming law, the UK is on the verge of joining Canada, Fiji, Australia and the US in embracing the era of internet regulation. It’s a promising development for the fight against online harms. Ultimately though, a global legislative solution is what’s needed to achieve a safer internet for everyone.

This month the UK’s much-debated Online Safety Bill moved one step closer to becoming law, as it entered the House of Lords. Ten years ago, calls to regulate the internet were often met with derision. Now, the UK is one of a number of countries spearheading a shift that could transform our future relationship with online services.

The UK Online Safety Bill

The UK Bill makes online service providers legally responsible for taking steps to prevent, respond to, and report illegal content, balancing regard for users’ rights to privacy and freedom of expression. The protections it introduces for users are promoted as a ‘triple lock’: firstly, providers are required to tackle illegal content on their services; secondly, they must enforce their own terms of use (i.e., deal with users who violate them), and thirdly, users should have a degree of control over their own exposure to content (for example, the ability to block or filter out anything they don’t wish to view). The provisions of the Online Safety Bill will be enforced by Ofcom, the appointed regulator for ‘online harms’. In the next few years, the European Union and Ireland are likely to join the cohort of regions with internet laws in force. Broadly speaking, all such laws (proposed or passed) seek to establish standards for online services, to make users – and society – safer.

Challenges implementing internet laws

Implementing internet laws is a complex task, for companies and regulators alike. In preparing to comply, some online service providers will need to overcome challenges ranging from the technical and practical (e.g.: how to integrate online safety technologies while preserving the core features of the service or user experience) to the behavioural and cultural (e.g.: how to establish and embed user safety as a core design principle). Enforcement meanwhile relies in the first instance on accurately identifying companies in regulatory scope. The provisions of the UK’s Online Safety Bill apply to firms formed or incorporated under UK law, or those with ‘UK links’. But neither criterion is clear-cut: complex corporate structures can make it hard to identify a company’s legal origin, and sometimes the geographical distribution of a provider’s services, and its users, is dynamic.

In a future world where internet laws are in force in multiple countries, there is a risk that complexities like these frustrate genuine efforts to determine the applicability of different regulatory frameworks. Additionally, differences in national regulatory approaches – as well as the absence of rules in some places – may create pockets where risk and harm are concentrated (mimicking what happens in respect of organised transnational crime). In other cross-border domains, consistency is encouraged by creating standards that are agreed upon multilaterally: examples include maritime law, international banking, and the rules of commerce enforced by the World Trade Organisation.

The need for global collaboration

There is already recognition of the benefit to be gained by aligning national internet laws, hence the decision by Australia’s eSafety Commissioner to lead the formation of the Global Online Safety Regulators’ Network. Launched in November 2022, the forum will enable collaboration between the regulators of Australia, Fiji, Ireland, and the UK, to promote greater consistency in laws and corresponding standards. Alongside this, governments and regulators must join forces to draft over-arching international standards for online services and jointly stand up a body that can enforce them.

The internet is a critical international infrastructure which the majority of the world’s population now uses for an increasing proportion of their activities and transactions. It’s time that we treat it as such.

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