Folk Devils and Internet Safety

Yesterday, at the State of the Net conference in Washington DC, a report by the ‘Internet Safety Technical Task Force‘ was launched. The report is available here, as are many supporting documents. Reactions from some of my daily blogs are available (David Weinberger, MichaelFroomkin so far, more as I see them), as is newspaper coverage (Guardian, New York Times). In general, the conclusion is fairly clear, that there are a range of measures that can be taken to improve the safety of younger Internet users, that no one technological fix is available, that some of the dangers are overstated, that there is a link between offline risk and online risk, and that ‘threats’ are not just the much-ballyhooed stranger danger, but bullying and harassment by peers. In an area that has long been characterised by moral panics, this is a remarkable outcome; I very much recommend downloading and reading the full package (it’s the antidote to hysteria, take dose as required), if you have the time! If you don’t, then at least start with this audio report from Radio Berkman on the Task Force.

I must confess that I had my doubts about this project. To begin with, the concept was in my view flawed: law officers of a government (state AGs) getting together and doing a deal (non-statutory ‘voluntary agreements’) with a powerful corporation (News Corporation / MySpace), which concludes with the corporation being sent off to investigate the solution, is inappropriate in so many ways, and lacking in democratic legitimacy or oversight. Then, MySpace having been given the power to choose the ‘Task Force’, it turned out that most of the members were companies running or benefitting from social networking sites.

Participation by civil society was a mixed bag too. At first it was quite depressing to see who was chosen – from a European point of view, the membership of ‘non-profits’ like the business-funded anti-regulation think tanks Progress and Freedom Foundation and Institute for Policy Innovation, seems bizarre, to say the least. The closest thing to any direct input from ‘youth’ were certain child safety groups, which carries its own problems. Subsequently, there was a wide consultation and opportunity to make submissions, which opened up the process in a laudable way.

I was also reassured by the quality and integrity of the academic researchers involved, particularly the Berkman Center’s John Palfrey as chair, by the openness of the process as mentioned above (the September open meeting being quite fun to watch/read), by a cheeky little insistence on transparency and dissemination in an IP policy (Exhibit 5 here – others take note) and then by the initial literature review that was published last year, which is a true gift to the policy-making process and to academic researchers too, and was thorough, measured and utterly fascinating to read. There is a similar report by a technical advisory board, which was specifically constituted as to avoid bias through financial considerations.

So, while still holding to the view that, in general, studying social phenomena and emerging legal issues should be free of corporate involvement, I think today’s report will make an extremely important contribution, not just in the US but elsewhere too. Its careful analysis of the variety of supposed technological solutions should be mandatory reading for legislators, and I would hope that, the next time a court is assessing the constitutionality of a relevant piece of legislation (as US courts did on a number of occasions re: filtering), that this material (assuming the already-infamous Footnote 17 in Exxon v Baker doesn’t prevent it) can be of assistance there, too. It does seem that some of the AGs are unhappy with the conclusions, although I haven’t had a chance to scrutinise that yet – they are arguing that the data relied upon is out of date, which will take a little time to unpick.

The story should not stop here, though. To add further confusion, a separate federal law has just set up another study group, the Online Safety and Technology Working Group, with a confusing mandate. I don’t think that group has been named yet, though. More importantly, ‘online safety’ is not limited to issues like solicitation, age-inappropriate content and bullying – I would argue that is is necessary to consider other issues like privacy, commercial targeting, censorship and data mining as part of a holistic approach to the safety of young users. Given the particular questions that this Task Force was asked to answer, it clearly wouldn’t have been possible to deal with these matters. However, it’s not enough for us to sit back and say that because there is no technological silver bullet, we just need more education and better parenting and everything will be fine. The motives of MySpace (and News International) must always be questioned – they are not charities or municipal playgrounds, but profit-driven media corporations. They are entitled to go about their business but not to do so without being scrutinised. Similarly, AGs are not lawmakers, and should not try to be. Building on the excellent work that the ISTTF and the Berkman Center have now completed, there is much still to be done.

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