More on Internet SafetyWednesday, September 24th, 2008 by Harry Lewis
I was pretty shaken by the end of the first day of the Internet Safety Technical Task Force yesterday. I had a meeting right afterwards, which I entered by yelping a primal scream.
All day yesterday, company after company gave presentations on how their products would help keep little Johnnie safe from predators and away from pornography. (You can check the conference program for the names of these businesses and hot links to their products. I should hasten to add that while I didn’t like much of what I was hearing, the meeting was run flawlessly — civil and lively and punctual too. Congratulations for a superb job by John Palfrey and the Berkman Center staff.) Some of the businesses offering solutions then answered the question of what we should do when Johnnie, frustrated with his overbearing parents, goes down the street to Libertarian Libby’s home, where the computer has no spyware: If we didn’t either keep Johnnie out of Libby’s house, or walk down the street ourselves and sell the same product to Libby’s parents, well, we were bad parents.
I tried to make the point that it is developmentally unhealthy to surveil your kids constantly, and safety was not the only value at stake. Growing up and learning trust and self-reliance are important too. Absolutely, was the answer. When your cell phone rings half a continent away because our product just caught Johnnie typing “boobs” into his Web browser, that creates a great opportunity for parent and child to sit down for a heart-to-heart.
I rather think that kids growing up in a 1984 childhood will expect to live in a 1984 adult world, with Big Brother watching over them constantly.
In any case, I am given to understand that there actually isn’t any evidence that predation on children is on the increase, in spite of the Internet horror stories, some of which we repeat in Blown to Bits. (One company actually reported that after monitoring tens of thousands of children, they had reported exactly 3 potential predators to the police.) Moreover, children who are victims are statistically likely to have other issues, and to come from families whose parents (if they have any) wouldn’t spend their nights worrying about their children’s safety. Child predation is a problem, but there are worse problems at which societal resources should be directed (for example, brutal child pornography is on the rise, I understand). Where we seem headed with Internet safety seems mad.
Several of the companies reported that the would retain the information they collected “forever.”
The fundamental problem with the agenda the states’ Attorneys General laid out is that it is premised on a moral and perhaps legal presumption that parents have an absolute right to know everything that their minor (under 18) children are saying and hearing. If society worked that way, it would never make any progress, as the prejudices and taboos of the parents would be handed on perfectly from one generation to the next. That isn’t social conservatism; that’s the preservation of human ignorance.