Neelie Kroes is a Vice President of the European Commission. She is responsible for the European Union's ambitious Digital Agenda. Robert Madelin is her CEO, being the Director-General for Information Society and Media. In an earlier blog I said this dynamic duo were the "new sherriffs in town". I think I might need to amend that slightly. There is definitely an element of the gun-slinger about them.
In March of this year, Madelin expressed doubts about the internet industry's ability to get its act together sufficiently to formulate a self-regulatory model which would pass muster. Nonetheless he gave them a year to vitiate such misgivings. Then in June, from left field, Commissioner Kroes decides anyway to launch an initiative of her own in approximately the same space.
Thus, whilst in Palo Alto, Seattle, Mountain View, Berlin, Rome, London, Madrid, Stockholm (and so on) corporate lawyers and various executives are debating how many angels ought to be able to dance on the head of a self-regulatory pin, what the pin should be made of, how much the pin should weigh, what colour it should be and who would be authorised to disclose the pin's existence to whom, Kroes in effect says
Enough already with the pin. Carry on talking about it as much as you like but, in the meantime, please get on with making the internet a better place for kids
The five points
Last Thursday Kroes publicly revealed how she thought that could be done. Kroes asked for action under five headings
• Simple and robust reporting tools: easy-to-find and recognisable features on all devices to enable effective reporting and responses to content and contacts that seem harmful to kids;
• Age-appropriate privacy settings: settings which take account of the needs of different age groups (such settings determine how widely available a user's information is; for example whether contact details or photos are available only to close contacts rather than to the general public);
• Wider use of content classification: to develop a generally valid approach to age-rating, which could be used across sectors and provide parents with understandable age categories;
• Wider availability and use of parental controls: user-friendly tools actively promoted to achieve the widest possible take-up;
• Effective takedown of child abuse material: to improve cooperation with law enforcement and hotlines, to take proactive steps to remove child sexual abuse material from the internet.
From 38 to 28
It is understood that Kroes wrote to 38 chief executives of high tech firms inviting them to sign up to what is now referred to as her Statement of Purpose. It has become the manifesto of a new Coalition for a Better Internet for Kids. 28 companies accepted the invitation and joined. It's an impressive list:
Apple, BSkyB, BT, Dailymotion, Facebook, Google, Hyves, KPN, Liberty Global, LG Electronics, Mediaset, Microsoft, Netlog, Nintendo, Nokia, Opera Software, Orange, Research In Motion, RTL Group, Samsung, Sulake, Telefonica, Teliasonera, Telenor Group, Tuenti, Vivendi, Vodafone.
We can expect more companies to join in the weeks and months ahead. Not being a member will have consequences, even if they are only at the level of PR. How would you explain to an inquisitive journalist why you are not in it?
The Commission will remain engaged
The Commission is going to stay involved in the processes which will follow the formation of the Coalition. An ambitious timetable has been set. The launch statement speaks of a review of progress next Summer but this is meant to be a time-limited initiative. I can find no express reference to it in the available documentation but 12 to 18 months has been mentioned.
The role of civil society
The children's organisations and other civil society bodies with an interest met with the Commission last week to discuss what happens next. There are anxieties on the part of the NGOs about the amount of time we will be expected to spend reviewing and commenting on documents or digging out fresh evidence to support this or that proposition. No doubt all this will become clear sooner rather than later. It needs to.
The industry presses on - hello Coalition No. 2
Meanwhile, back on the head of the pin, the industry is proceeding with its discussions on developing a new framework for the self-regulation of the internet in Europe. There is to be another Coalition, a new Coalition for the Safer Use of Connected Devices and Online Services by Children and Young People in the EU. Coalitions are very fashionable these days. The title sounds a bit strangled but the intention is clear enough. In shorthand it is referred to as the ICT Principles.
Until the appearance of the Kroes initiative many of us believed that her five points, as well as lots of other matters, would be swept up within the ICT Principles framework that was evolving from the discussions that were taking place, but there you go. Stuff happens. Nothing is written in the stars.
No necessary contradiction
However, strictly-speaking, the two streams of activity, the two Coalitions do not contradict each other, they are not necessarily in competition.
The need for an overarching, platform neutral set of principles to encompass a wide range of internet-based or internet-focused technologies, and a new forum in which to discuss them, are desirable and in lots of obvious ways are completely different from a call to action now on particular issues of the kind Kroes illustrated. Companies could get on with the five points without making any wider commitment to or promises about self-regulation or to engaging in wider discussions about policy.
Potentially going with the ICT Principles does have much more far reaching consequences than the limited, if important, five action areas which Kroes highlighted. If viewed from that angle the Kroes initiative is therefore a form of belt and braces, extra insurance. Children come out the winners. Round of applause for the Commission. If only I could believe that this was all carefully calculated and calibrated to produce just such a result. Unfortunately I can't, but it does show that sometimes shooting from the hip can take you to a good place.
It still looks a little odd
We still do not know which firms are going to sign up to the ICT Principles document but the word is that not everyone in Kroes's Coalition will also join that one. People will be perplexed in relation to companies signing up to Kroes but not the ICT Principles, and vice versa. There will be much speculation about the reasons. I suspect the practical meaning of a lot of this, once again, will only become clear as either or both sets of processes start to get underway.
I agree there is no textbook anyone can borrow from a library or buy from Amazon about how to go about doing something like this, although it is rather reminiscent of the early days of the UK's Internet Task Force on Child Safety, back in 2001. With that in mind one of, only one of my major anxieties is about how the NGOs are going to cope with all the work. Many of us have day jobs and a living to earn, as do people in the Commission and the companies.
The possibility for overlap between the two strands is clear. I guess that could be resolved in part by putting the focus initially on the Kroes agenda. The last thing anyone involved in this needs or could cope with is two sets of documents, two sets of meetings covering more or less the same ground.