Give 1m UK children reliable broadband or risk harming their education, MPs say | Technology – Blog – 10 minute

The government must urgently ensure that more than 1 million children have reliable internet access at home or risk irreparable harm to their education, a cross-party group of MPs and former ministers has said.
Tony Blair is among a number of prominent figures, including a Tory grandee, to back calls to equip 1.3 million children eligible for free school meals with a broadband connection and devices.

A bill that will be presented to parliament this week says the coronavirus lockdown had “exposed the digital divide”, with about 700,000 children unable to complete any schoolwork because of a lack of internet at home.
Siobhain McDonagh, the Labour MP behind the bill, said: “Those children who can’t access the same resources as their classmates will find themselves even further behind when they finally return. Some may never catch up.
“This policy isn’t a silver bullet and can’t replace months of missed education. But it would make an immediate, tangible difference to families right across our country.”
The proposal has won the support of more than 40 leading voices on education including Sir Michael Wilshaw, the former head of Ofsted, Robert Halfon, the Conservative chair of the Commons education select committee, and Philip Harris, a multimillionaire Tory grandee and sponsor of 13 academies.
Voluntary groups in some of Britain’s most deprived areas have said that households without regular internet access were struggling to carry out essential tasks like pay bills, submit job applications and make universal credit inquiries since community centres and libraries closed in March.
Among those hardest hit, the charities said, were about 700,000 children unable to complete schoolwork, and scores of elderly and disabled people who had been self-isolating – sometimes without any social contact – for more than three months.
More than 5 million adults in the UK have either never used the internet or not used it in the past three months, equivalent to one in 10 of all adults in the country. While most non-internet users are of retirement age, 773,000 adults – equivalent to the population of Leeds – are under the age of 65.
Polly Neate, chief executive of the homeless charity Shelter, has described the digital divide as “fast becoming a defining social justice issue of this crisis”.
On Monday, Jangala, a charity that specialises in providing the internet to humanitarian disaster zones, is shifting its focus to the UK with a trial to connect about 60 people at a homeless shelter in Brighton.
The charity, which was founded five years ago to work in the so-called Calais “Jungle” camp, said it was shifting its attention to Britain after being alerted to a huge need since the lockdown began in March.
Rich Thanki, Jangala’s founder, said its UK trial would expand to other homeless shelters, schools and community centres around the country if successful. Its technology has been used in refugee camps across Europe and Africa, including in Calais where it was reputedly used by about 4,000 refugees a week, and the huge Kakuma camp in north-west Kenya, as well as in schools in Afghanistan and health clinics in Tanzania.
Thanki said it was depressing that charities were having to step in to connect people in Britain, the world’s sixth-biggest economy.
Nick Gardham, the chief executive of the Community Organisers charity, said some single-parent families were having to “choose between data and food” so their children could complete schoolwork online. He welcomed the lifting of broadband data caps, in a deal struck by the government and telecoms firms, but said that would only help people “in the club” and not those who could not afford a monthly tariff.
His charity is urging the government to open up the broadband infrastructure provided by BT Openzone and Virgin so hotspots can be used free of charge during the pandemic. Its Operation Wifi campaign has been backed by several charities including Shelter and AgeUK.
Sacha Bedding, the manager of a community centre in Hartlepool’s Dyke House – which is in one of the 2% most deprived communities in England – said internet access should be defined as a utility but there was “an unwillingness on a national level” to treat it as such. “There isn’t a political will for it,” he said. “There’s an echo of it being seen as a luxury rather than a basic, essential necessity.”

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NHS contact-tracing app ready for use in three weeks, MPs told | Technology – Blog – 10 minute

An NHS app that alerts users to recent contacts who are infected with coronavirus will be ready for deployment within three weeks, according to the chief executive of NHSX, the digital arm of the health service.
Matthew Gould told MPs on the Commons science and technology committee on Tuesday that the contact-tracing app would be trialled in a “small area” and available for use next month provided it performed well.
But while the app will be ready in two to three weeks, its widespread rollout will depend on the strategy ministers adopt around easing the lockdown and the availability of testing, which is crucial for the app’s success.

Ministers are working through proposals on how to refine the lockdown over the coming weeks without allowing the reproduction rate of the virus to rise above one, the point at which infections would rise again.
“We are, I hope, on course to have the app ready for when it will be needed, at the moment when the country looks for the tools to come out of lockdown safely,” Gould told MPs.
The NHS app uses short-range bluetooth signals to record when people are in close proximity for a specified period of time. It then issues automated alerts to those at risk whenever a fellow user records a positive test for the virus. The alerts will not disclose who has triggered the warning, but will advise contacts to seek a test or self-isolate.

The UK government has said that these five tests have to be met before they will consider easing coronavirus lockdown restrictions:

That the NHS can cope with the number of hospital admissions and people in intensive care
A ‘sustained and consistent’ fall in the daily death rate
The rate of infection is decreasing to ‘manageable levels’
Ensuring that the supply of tests and personal protective equipment can meet future demand
Confidence that any adjustments to the restrictions would not risk a second peak of virus infections later in the year

The app’s developers have built the system around a “centralised” platform following discussions with advisers including GCHQ’s Tempemail Cyber Security Centre. In the centralised model, contacts are represented by an “identifier” and matched on a central computer.
The approach contrasts with that being taken by Google and Apple for a similar contact-tracing app where matches are performed on users’ mobile phones. The tech firms claim their approach is more secure because there is no central server that governments or hackers can access to track people and those they meet.
Prof Lilian Edwards, an expert in internet law at Newcastle University, told MPs that the centralised approach raised questions about privacy. “There’s an intrinsic risk in building any kind of centralised index of the movement of the entire population which might be retained in some form beyond the pandemic,” she said. “We have a precedent of other pandemics leading to a mass land grab in extensive state surveillance, that is my worry.” She added, however, that the “devil is in the detail”.
Gould said there were “a series of protections” that meant people should be confident that their privacy would be respected when using the app and that the data would only be used to control the outbreak and for NHS care and research.
He warned that without a public awareness campaign, it would be “tough” to get enough people, estimated at 80% of smartphone users, to use the app. “The message needs to be: ‘If you want to keep your family and yourselves safe, if you want to protect the NHS and stop it being overwhelmed and at the same time we want get the country back and get the economy moving, the app is going to be an essential part of the strategy for doing that,’” he said.
But Prof Christophe Fraser, a senior group leader in pathogen dynamics at the University of Oxford’s Big Data Institute, told the committee that if roughly 60% of the population used the app, that would be enough to keep the reproduction number or the virus below one, meaning the epidemic could be contained.

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Rebel Tory MPs put down amendment to bar Huawei technology | Technology – Blog – 10 minute

A group of eight Conservative rebel MPs, including four former cabinet ministers, have put down an amendment calling on the government to eliminate all Huawei technology from the UK’s mobile phone networks by the end of 2022.
Led by Sir Iain Duncan Smith, Owen Paterson, David Davis and Damian Green, the rebels hope to stage a show of strength – although it is not clear whether they can attract the 44 votes needed to threaten Boris Johnson’s majority.
There are some claims they could threaten the government if all opposition parties supported them, but one rebel source told the Guardian the true number of Tory malcontents was in the 30s, not enough to force a defeat.
Insiders said the amendment represented the first step in a “guerrilla” campaign aimed at prompting a rethink in Downing Street, in tandem with pressure from the White House, which is strongly opposed to the deployment of Huawei.
The White House and the Conservative rebels believe technology from the Chinese firm represents a potential surveillance risk, but Downing Street and Britain’s spy agencies believe any risks can be managed, based partly on their experience of the kit.
The amendment is attached to an obscure technical bill, the telecommunications infrastructure bill, and is unlikely to be effective if passed because the proposed legislation only applies where leasehold property owners are unresponsive to phone companies.
It does, however, represent an opportunity for rebels to declare their numbers before Downing Street puts forward legislation to implement its Huawei decision to a vote later in the spring.
Last month, Boris Johnson’s government announced plans to cap Huawei’s market share in 5G at 35%. The rebels want the UK to eliminate the Chinese company’s involvement entirely, even though it has been used in British networks since 2003.
On Thursday, Ben Wallace, the British defence secretary, met his US counterpart, Mark Esper, for a “candid discussion” about Britain’s 5G plans.
Esper said he was particularly concerned about the security of intelligence-sharing between the two countries, and that any Chinese involvement “could allow Beijing to access, disrupt, manipulate and misuse vital information, thus jeopardising the integrity and strength of the Nato alliance”.
Wallace said Huawei was going to be prevented from supplying core technology to British networks, and that ministers aimed to reduce its share below the proposed 35%, without giving any commitment to go to zero as the rebels demand. British policy was to “ban, cap and cut”, he said.

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Loot boxes in games are gambling and should be banned for kids, say UK MPs – gpgmail


UK MPs have called for the government to regulate the games industry’s use of loot boxes under current gambling legislation — urging a blanket ban on the sale of loot boxes to players who are children.

Kids should instead be able to earn in-game credits to unlock look boxes, MPs have suggested in a recommendation that won’t be music to the games industry’s ears.

Loot boxes refer to virtual items in games that can be bought with real-world money and do not reveal their contents in advance. The MPs argue the mechanic should be considered games of chance played for money’s worth and regulated by the UK Gambling Act.

The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport’s (DCMS) parliamentary committee makes the recommendations in a report published today following an enquiry into immersive and addictive technologies that saw it take evidence from a number of tech companies including Fortnite maker Epic Games; Facebook-owned Instagram; and Snapchap.

The committee said it found representatives from the games industry to be “wilfully obtuse” in answering questions about typical patterns of play — data the report emphasizes is necessary for proper understanding of how players are engaging with games — as well as calling out some games and social media company representatives for demonstrating “a lack of honesty and transparency”, leading it to question what the companies have to hide.

“The potential harms outlined in this report can be considered the direct result of the way in which the ‘attention economy’ is driven by the objective of maximising user engagement,” the committee writes in a summary of the report which it says explores “how data-rich immersive technologies are driven by business models that combine people’s data with design practices to have powerful psychological effects”.

As well as trying to pry information about of games companies, MPs also took evidence from gamers during the course of the enquiry.

In one instance the committee heard that a gamer spent up to £1,000 per year on loot box mechanics in Electronic Arts’s Fifa series.

A member of the public also reported that their adult son had built up debts of more than £50,000 through spending on microtransactions in online game RuneScape. The maker of that game, Jagex, told the committee that players “can potentially spend up to £1,000 a week or £5,000 a month”.

In addition to calling for gambling law to be applied to the industry’s lucrative loot box mechanic, the report calls on games makers to face up to responsibilities to protect players from potential harms, saying research into possible negative psychosocial harms has been hampered by the industry’s unwillingness to share play data.

“Data on how long people play games for is essential to understand what normal and healthy — and, conversely, abnormal and potentially unhealthy — engagement with gaming looks like. Games companies collect this information for their own marketing and design purposes; however, in evidence to us, representatives from the games industry were wilfully obtuse in answering our questions about typical patterns of play,” it writes.

“Although the vast majority of people who play games find it a positive experience, the minority who struggle to maintain control over how much they are playing experience serious consequences for them and their loved ones. At present, the games industry has not sufficiently accepted responsibility for either understanding or preventing this harm. Moreover, both policy-making and potential industry interventions are being hindered by a lack of robust evidence, which in part stems from companies’ unwillingness to share data about patterns of play.”

The report recommends the government require games makers share aggregated player data with researchers, with the committee calling for a new regulator to oversee a levy on the industry to fund independent academic research — including into ‘Gaming disorder‘, an addictive condition formally designated by the World Health Organization — and to ensure that “the relevant data is made available from the industry to enable it to be effective”.

“Social media platforms and online games makers are locked in a relentless battle to capture ever more of people’s attention, time and money. Their business models are built on this, but it’s time for them to be more responsible in dealing with the harms these technologies can cause for some users,” said DCMS committee chair, Damian Collins, in a statement.

“Loot boxes are particularly lucrative for games companies but come at a high cost, particularly for problem gamblers, while exposing children to potential harm. Buying a loot box is playing a game of chance and it is high time the gambling laws caught up. We challenge the Government to explain why loot boxes should be exempt from the Gambling Act.

“Gaming contributes to a global industry that generates billions in revenue. It is unacceptable that some companies with millions of users and children among them should be so ill-equipped to talk to us about the potential harm of their products. Gaming disorder based on excessive and addictive game play has been recognised by the World Health Organisation. It’s time for games companies to use the huge quantities of data they gather about their players, to do more to proactively identify vulnerable gamers.”

The committee wants independent research to inform the development of a behavioural design code of practice for online services. “This should be developed within an adequate timeframe to inform the future online harms regulator’s work around ‘designed addiction’ and ‘excessive screen time’,” it writes, citing the government’s plan for a new Internet regulator for online harms.

MPs are also concerned about the lack of robust age verification to keep children off age-restricted platforms and games.

The report identifies inconsistencies in the games industry’s ‘age-ratings’ stemming from self-regulation around the distribution of games (such as online games not being subject to a legally enforceable age-rating system, meaning voluntary ratings are used instead).

“Games companies should not assume that the responsibility to enforce age-ratings applies exclusively to the main delivery platforms: All companies and platforms that are making games available online should uphold the highest standards of enforcing age-ratings,” the committee writes on that.

“Both games companies and the social media platforms need to establish effective age verification tools. They currently do not exist on any of the major platforms which rely on self-certification from children and adults,” Collins adds.

During the enquiry it emerged that the UK government is working with tech companies including Snap to try to devise a centralized system for age verification for online platforms.

A section of the report on Effective Age Verification cites testimony from deputy information commissioner Steve Wood raising concerns about any move towards “wide-spread age verification [by] collecting hard identifiers from people, like scans of passports”.

Wood instead pointed the committee towards technological alternatives, such as age estimation, which he said uses “algorithms running behind the scenes using different types of data linked to the self-declaration of the age to work out whether this person is the age they say they are when they are on the platform”.

Snapchat’s Will Scougal also told the committee that its platform is able to monitor user signals to ensure users are the appropriate age — by tracking behavior and activity; location; and connections between users to flag a user as potentially underage. 

The report also makes a recommendation on deepfake content, with the committee saying that malicious creation and distribution of deepfake videos should be regarded as harmful content.

“The release of content like this could try to influence the outcome of elections and undermine people’s public reputation,” it warns. “Social media platforms should have clear policies in place for the removal of deepfakes. In the UK, the Government should include action against deepfakes as part of the duty of care social media companies should exercise in the interests of their users, as set out in the Online Harms White Paper.”

“Social media firms need to take action against known deepfake films, particularly when they have been designed to distort the appearance of people in an attempt to maliciously damage their public reputation, as was seen with the recent film of the Speaker of the US House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi,” adds Collins.


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