The government plans to introduce mandatory age verification on pornography sites and Matt Hancock has proposed a time limit for kids on social media. However, tech startups worry that these proposals may hurt their businesses and fail to protect kids
From restricting access to pornography sites to suggestions from Matt Hancock, secretary of state for digital, culture, media and sports, that social-media platforms should limit kids’ screen time, the government seemingly believes the internet is a dangerous place. However, while these proposals are well-intended, UK entrepreneurs worry they may have a negative effect on British startups without actually protecting any children.
The debate about how to best shield the country’s young from the perils of the digital realm was reignited this week after the government delayed its planned introduction of an age-verification requirement for all pornographic websites. The regulations were set out in last year’s Digital Economy Act and were supposed to come into effect in April. But after failing to explain how it would work in praxis, the government delayed it for later this year.
Additionally, the country’s leadership talked about other ways to protect kids this week. Not only did Hancock suggest that platforms like Snapchat and Facebook should limit the time kids spend on them but also floated the idea yesterday of introducing warning labels on these platforms.
Following the news, several organisations have warned that any restrictions could seriously damage internet freedoms. And now it’s been suggested that they could also affect UK startups negatively.
Commenting on these fears, Laurent Bourrelly, the SEO consultant and founder of BootCampSEO, said: “With many children and teens responsible for an increasing number of online businesses being created, the restrictions are likely to adversely affect many younger entrepreneurs who require the internet to successfully run their businesses.”
Moreover, limiting young people’s internet access could also influence how businesses operate. “It will make startups think carefully about targeting young people in a frivolous way,” said Julian Hall, founder of Ultra Education, the company teaching entrepreneurial skills to children. Although, he also pointed out that the moment restrictions are put in place people in the tech sector may begin to look for ways to work around them. “As with everything, there are always loopholes and I think if a startup really wants to target younger people they will find a way to do so by designing the tech in a different way,” he said.
Moreover, while these restrictions are well-intended, some worry about how effective they are. “I don’t believe that these restrictions will protect children and teens in the way that the government or parents believe they will,” said Bourrelly. “The government might feel better if they try to stop kids from watching porn or using too much social media but there is always a workaround to regulatory limitations.” Looking at places like China, he added that people always find a way to get what they need. “If they totally shut down [the] internet kids would probably watch porn on USB keys traded during lunch break,” he said. “You can’t censor something as vast as the internet and stop people from accessing whatever is available online.”
But while they doubt restrictions being the right way forward, they suggested an alternative. “The dangers of these proposals [are] that we could end up becoming a nanny state,” said Hall. “Whilst I agree that young people need to be protected, it's down to parents and carers to enforce this.” Instead of limiting their access to the web, he suggested that teachers and parents join forces and provide children with better information and guidance. “Rather than restriction, education is needed, he said.
While the debate about these proposals is set to run hot for the foreseeable future, we hope the government takes the concerns of the country’s startups under consideration.