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The Guardian view on online dangers: the internet needs a retrofit | Editorial

For anyone who harbors doubts about the scale of the challenge in trying to make the internet safer, especially for children, a new Channel 4 Dispatches program on the metaverse is likely to dispel them. Presenter Yinka Bokinni bills herself as a “tech geek” before donning an Oculus headset and embarking on the network of 3D virtual worlds that Meta’s Mark Zuckerberg describes as the internet’s “next frontier”. What she finds there leaves her visibly shaken. Sexual harassment, threats of rape, and racial epithets are rampant, and childhood offers little protection (one of the avatars she adopts is 13). Even pedophilia is freely admitted.

Back in the real world, the UK Government’s Online Safety Bill is about to become law. It had its second reading in the Commons this month and has broad support, although Labor is likely to try to change the provisions giving the Secretary of State powers that should remain with the regulator, Ofcom. Meanwhile in Brussels, a deal moving closer to enacting a digital services law was reached over the weekend. It will ban certain types of targeted advertising, pave the way for fines of up to 6% of global revenue, and charge companies a fee to pay for compliance.

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Europe is leading the way in internet regulation, developing standards and making demands of businesses that may ultimately be adopted and adapted elsewhere. Already, California lawmakers have introduced measures based on the UK’s age-appropriate design code – an attempt to modernize platforms with the protection features that should have been there in the first place. In a speech last week, Barack Obama warned of the growing threat that online disinformation poses to democracy and called for more accountability.

But the emergence of the metaverse concept, in which Meta (formerly Facebook) invested $10 billion last year, and the horrifying scenes of virtual space games highlighted by Dispatches, raise a disturbing prospect. It’s that while policymakers are scrambling to control the chaos on existing platforms, the billionaires who control digital media are already leapfrogging, while ignoring – in their ingrained habit – the new dangers that new modes of making money online are sure to create. Meta’s Quest was the most downloaded app on Christmas Day in 2021, with 8 million Oculus headsets sold to date.

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Policy makers and activists deserve credit. Already, scrutiny of the UK bill has led to changes, including the long-awaited introduction of mandatory age verification for porn sites and the promise of clearer protections for the press. But there is no room for complacency. Women’s groups say measures to tackle online sexual abuse are insufficient, despite the creation of a new cyberflashing offence. And there are concerns about how the bill will define “lawful but harmful speech,” which major platforms will have to protect adults from. Mumsnet is concerned that user discussions on topics such as eating disorders may violate rules aimed at blocking harmful content.

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MPs from all parties should engage on these issues and encourage broader debate. The initial lax regulatory approach to social media was a mistake. The default assumptions of good user behavior have proven to be extremely overly optimistic. Companies should never have been allowed to launch products aimed at children without first proving they were safe. If ministers are going to reject the NSPCC’s proposal for criminal penalties for tech company bosses who allow serious crimes against children to be committed on their platforms, they must explain why. As the charity points out, the financial services industry has them.

The power, wealth and influence of the technology sector are immense. But governments are not weak. Online security should never be an afterthought again.

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