By the London Technology Team
Political parties continue to fight over Communications Data Bill
The unedifying fight between the UK’s three main political parties over the abandoned Communications Data Bill has continued this week, with the battle rumbling on throughout the Liberal Democrat Party Conference. This latest round of hostility was triggered last week by the Home Secretary, Theresa May, who launched a scathing attack on her coalition partners during her speech at the Conservative Party Conference, making the incredible claim that the abandonment of the Communications Data Bill had effectively resulted in children’s lives being put at risk. Most importantly, May promised that, if elected with a majority, the Conservative Party would re-introduce the Bill. May’s insults prompted demands for an apology by the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg.
As explained by Rowena Mason in the Guardian, this week, speaking at a fringe event at the Liberal Democrat Party Conference in Glasgow, Julian Huppert MP (the Liberal Democrats’ Home Affairs Spokesman), stated that the Labour Party is just as likely to re-introduce the Bill as the Conservative Party. The Communications Data Bill, known by many as the Snoopers’ Charter, would have required mobile network operators and internet service providers to retain records of users’ internet browsing history, internet gaming, mobile messaging, and voice calls for 12 months, and its abandonment in 2013 was welcomed by many civil liberties campaigners.
Furthermore, Huppert pledged that if in Government as part of a coalition, the Lib Dems would once again veto the Communications Data Bill or any similar legislation. This point was reiterated by Clegg in his keynote speech, with the Deputy Prime Minister stating that the “Communications Data Bill was disproportionate, disempowering — we blocked it once and we’d do it again”.
The last few weeks have seen fierce debate over the UK’s role in the coordinated airstrike campaign against Isis targets in Iraq and Syria. However, away from discussions about military solutions, greater prominence has been given to navigating the online battlegrounds of the Isis threat. European security officials, including the Home Office’s James Brokenshire MP, convened in Luxembourg to examine options for countering online radicalism. The European Commission had called on major global technology companies to join security ministers from across the continent to discuss how to combat the online threat.
Representatives from Google, Facebook, Twitter and Microsoft were amongst those from industry that attended the high level meeting, tasked with halting the spread of jihadist propaganda and diluting Isis efforts to use social media as a recruitment tool. This is not new; large tech firms have long advised Government’s and supra-national bodies on cyber terror threats, but typically on an adhoc basis. However, as The Times’ technology correspondent, James Dean, perceptively noted in an article this week, the European Commission’s effective codification of this relationship is a reflection of the perceived severity of the Isis threat, and recognition of their skill in spreading their message online.
Cyber-attacks, extremist propaganda and the use of social media to recruit vulnerable young people are simply modern incarnations of age-old tools of war. However – with the recent spate of Isis beheadings in mind – of particular concern is the capacity of the digital sphere to circumvent traditional physical barriers to unwanted content. The new breed of digital tools used by those wishing to spread hate are tremendously efficient and we are yet to develop the digital barriers needed to protect some of the most vulnerable in society from their insidious influence.
A third of children have their own tablets
Ofcom have published new research that one in three children have their own tablet computer. This presents new challenges for parents, politicians and the tech industry as well as reflects wider changes. More kids have tablets, but this is at the expense of TVs, which fewer children have compared to 2009.
With concerns over inappropriate content, it is not surprising to see that 84% of parents surveyed directly supervise their kids online and 82% have set rules for browsing. Over half of respondents also said they use software to mitigate online risks, which comes a year after the major ISPs started offering and majorly marketing free parental controls to their customers and overall, 9/10 parents took some sort of action to mitigate online risks. Away from parental controls, these actions include time limits on things like social media, using anti-virus software and passwords on devices.
Away from content, the tech industry has suffered quite a bit of pressure over bills too. Many ‘free’ games offer the option to pay for extra content, which has led to some big bills for parents as kids unwittingly bought this content without knowing it was being paid for with real money. Apple and Google, who process the payments, have worked on making this harder to do, but it faced serious pressure from regulators across the world to add in extra barriers. Another issue is so called ‘bill-shock’ when youngsters go over their data limits, or use 3/4g abroad, not knowing this is substantially more expensive than at home.
Children and technology has always been contentious. When TVs and games consoles become more ubiquitous, campaigners and parent groups were just as worried about the impact on children. What would happen to children’s academic performance? Will they go to bed on time, and is it healthy to spend more time inside and not doing any exercise? These are not new concerns, but as tablets become even more popular and affordable, the number of people using them will only grow.
Ofcom’s research can be viewed here.