Bishop of Chelmsford – why the Internet needs regulation

On 17th January 2019 Baroness Kidron led a debate in the House of Lords on the motion “that this House takes note of the relationship between the use of digital technology and the health and well-being of children and young people.” The Bishop of Chelmsford, Rt Revd Stephen Cottrell, spoke in the debate:

The Lord Bishop of Chelmsford: My Lords, an unregulated digital environment is causing moral decay. There is no time to reiterate the various harms that are being caused, but they are deep-seated, corrosive and pervasive. Just last week I was at a school in Essex talking to 7 to 11 year-olds about their use of a game called TikTok. All of them were using it. The lower age limit for using it is 13. As the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, pointed out, the digital world assumes that all users are equal and all users are adults, whereas in fact one-third of users worldwide are children. Therefore, their health, well-being and development require us to ensure that the internet, and the many ways that children access it, are as safe as they can be. This has usually meant creating special safe places for children or safety options that can be activated.

Would it not be better to turn this whole approach on its head? With any other public space, be it a cinema, a shopping mall or a city square, our assumption is that this is a safe place for all ages to gather and therefore safe for children. Regulation and, where necessary, legislation supports this view and then we create dedicated spaces for adults—not the other way round. In the cinema we do this through film classification. In a public park or a city square we do it through ​public order legislation. The internet is a public space. Indeed, for children and young people it is the public space. This means that regulation and guidance to make the internet safe by design are all the more necessary. Far from inhibiting the internet, as some vested interests claim, it will enable the internet to be the democratic, creative and liberating space it is meant to be. It is the lack of regulation that makes it dangerous and debilitating. Achieving a common standard does not make the internet restrictive for adults; it just means that we apply the same principles to all parts of our common life.

Let me put it another way. In the 1970s we added fluoride to water and to toothpaste. Dental hygiene was transformed. We stopped dealing with the symptoms of tooth decay and designed a way of improving everybody’s health. There is an important philosophical question here. What sort of world do we wish to build in this digital age? It is no good shrugging our shoulders and saying that it is all too difficult. Nor is it acceptable for Facebook, Google and Amazon to say that they are not to blame because they are just platforms. They curate the way we receive the information they gather, and this gives them a powerful editorial voice. Increasingly they are publishers as well, and their big bucks distort the whole ecosystem of our media economy. They are creating monopolies that it is hard to imagine us tolerating in any other industry.

The forthcoming report of the Communications Committee—on which it has been my privilege and education to sit, alongside the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron—will present some recommendations on how we might regulate the internet. Most of all, we need to make it safe by design, and teach children how to inhabit it. Without this, we will sell them short and allow the liberating genius of the internet to be compromised and stymied. In other walks of life, if it were your child in the betting shop or flicking through a pornographic magazine, with their worldview being shaped by an increasingly narrow echo chamber of gossip, speculation and fake news, you would want to do something about it. That is our job. We need to find a way of putting fluoride in the internet.


Lord Clement-Jones (LD)…The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford mentioned the House of Lords Communications Select Committee, of which he is a member. We all await with bated breath what I hope will be a worthy successor to its excellent report, Growing Up with the Internet.​.. As the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, my noble friend Lord Storey, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford and other noble Lords have emphasised, it is down to the Government to regulate this area. The Government should absolutely be proactive here.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (Lord Ashton of Hyde) (Con)…The noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford talked about safety by design. That is absolutely critical and we agree with it. We will get updates from tech companies that are developing new products to ensure that internet safety, cybersecurity and data protection are all part of the design process….

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