Should Government Regulate Social Networks?

Euan Semple was interviewed this morning on BBC Breakfast about a proposal by the British Government to try and ban certain email addresses from social networks like Facebook, MySpace, and Bebo in an effort to protect children from online predators. Here’s the video:

When the guest sitting next to Euan – Annie Mullins, the chair of the Home Office Task Force on Child Protection and the Internet – was challenged on whether a government program to encourage these sites to try and block potential predators could actually work (since even though the government has a database of information on child predators, anyone can anonymously sign up for a free email address on sites like Yahoo and Google) she responded that she “learned about this only yesterday, and this is news to us.”

It seems to me one should go on national TV having thoroughly read the proposal one is being interviewed about, no?

Fortunately, Euan’s response was much more informed. When asked about whether the government should be involved in something like this, he responded:

Part of the problem is people expecting the government to sort it out for them and to manage the situation for them…The challenge is to come up with regulations that make sense and that people can have confidence in. And one of the challenges is that the institutions that are trying to come up with these regulations don’t always understand the environment they’re trying to regulate.

One of the hosts referred the Internet as a “sort of unregulated, wild wild west.” – Euan had an excellent backhanded response to this:

One of the things I’m concerned about is that the Internet is portrayed as a scary place; parents are wary of it. Partly through the media they get conditioned to think it’s a scary place…

This is an ongoing problem in the mainstream media, and even more surprising considering the massive investments major media outlets have made in their online presences. When the BBC itself has an immense presence on the Internet, one should think that the TV hosts would do well to sound like they’re in 2008 – not 1998.

As for government involvement in online safety. It’s a good idea in principle, but people within government need to educate themselves about the tools they’re trying to regulate. Otherwise they really have no business pushing proposals that sound good, but require a lot of time and money and don’t address the issue in a meaningful way. That’s just feel-good politics.

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