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The Policy Ask with Beeban Kidron: “Taking apart legal protections is straight out of a dictator’s playbook”

The children’s rights campaigner on online safety, how the world of work has changed for women, and the courage of Emily Wilding Davison.

By Spotlight

Beeban Tania Kidron is a leading voice on children’s rights in the digital environment and a global authority on digital regulation and accountability. She sits as a cross-bench peer in the House of Lords and serves on the Unesco Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development, and several other bodies focused on the intersection of children’s rights and the digital world. Before being appointed to the Lords she was a film director and founder of the charity Filmclub (now Into Film).

How do you start your working day?

I start by listening to the Today programme and often find myself “up a height” – Geordie for upset or angry – before my feet hit the floor. My husband is a Geordie, they have a lot of very evocative language.

What has been your career high?

Seeing the Age Appropriate Design Code published, with the 15 standards set out in full and then witnessing the changes that the companies made in response. It really hit home when a Canadian teenager realised I was the architect of a law that meant he had stopped getting notifications through the night – and thanked me in front of all his peers – for his improved sleep, grades and mental health. It doesn’t get better than that.

What has been the most challenging moment of your career?

I was directing a film but the day before showing it to the studio head, I went into labour with my second child. I’d worked for years to make the movie and to reach this moment, when I would have the chance to defend my vision to the studio. My office called the head of the studio to ask if the screening could be moved from the Friday to the following Monday. The message came back that the directors’ cut would be shown whether or not the director was there. I gave birth at 4am and was at the screening by 10am, then returned to hospital and reunited with my baby. Three decades later it is impossible to reproduce the conditions under which a new mother would be confronted with such a choice – but the world of work was very different for women then. Now both the law and the culture has changed and it is inconceivable that a young woman would be put in that position. Thank God.

If you could give your younger self career advice, what would it be?

It’s not a race.

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Which political figure inspires you?

Every now and again I ask the security guards in Westminster Hall to let me into the chapel where there is a plaque – in an electrical cupboard – to Emily Wilding Davison. Davison was a suffragette who hid in parliament on the night of the 1911 census so she could record her address as “House of Commons” in her bid to get the vote for women. Two years later she died throwing herself under the King’s horse in a further attempt to bring public notice to women’s enfranchisement. I would not go that far myself but visiting this most unglamorous part of the parliamentary estate reminds me that activism and political change requires commitment, creativity and courage.

What policy or fund is the UK government getting right?

The Online Safety Act became law last year. It is an important piece of legislation, particularly as regards children. In the Lords there were dozens of positive changes made on a cross-party basis, with support from officials and the government. This unusual demonstration of consensus and collective working is worth noting, not only because it was a good example of how people want parliament to behave – but also a signal of just how important this issue is. Special mention goes to [the Science Secretary] Michelle Donelan. After years of delay, she was the secretary of state who finally got it over the line.

And what policy should the UK government scrap?

Anything that requires them to change the law to make their policies lawful. Disassembling legal protections when inconvenient is a move straight out of the dictator’s playbook.

What upcoming UK policy or law are you most looking forward to?

I was pleased to see the Competition and Markets Bill survive a summer of lobbying to reach parliament more or less intact. The incumbent power across the globe of a handful of tech companies is the real existential threat of tech. Having that much power creates a scenario where they, rather than democratically elected parliaments, determine the rules of the future. In a post-Brexit world our tech regulation must be fit for purpose. Competition regulation is an important part of that.

What piece of international government policy could the UK learn from?

The Netherlands did a deal with Google to ensure that its education platforms and products – including Google Classroom – did not leak children’s data from school and homework into the commercial world. I would like to see the UK government do that immediately as part of a wider commitment to protect children’s safety and privacy right across the education sector. What we have now is a perverse situation in which children enjoy greater privacy using tech outside of school than inside. School data covers everything from visits to the nurse, immigration status, attendance, disciplinary record and how long it took to complete an online maths or aptitude test – extraordinarily intimate and revealing information. Now, it is flowing out of the school gates and into the hands of commercial players, from advertisers to gambling firms.

If you could pass one law this year, what would it be?

The Data Protection and Digital Information Bill No 2 (DPDI) – but only after it’s been overhauled. Rather than watering down protections, the DPDI could enable UK businesses to innovate while continuing to protect citizens. It could do this by introducing new data models for collective activation of data rights, facilitating public-interest research, creating a data protection certification for education and ed-tech (as above), stopping targeted political advertising, tackling misinformation, and creating an individual complaints system.

[See also: Why harmful social media content needs stronger regulation]

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