The Government is in court tomorrow over its failure to implement age verification for pornography sites. Fingers crossed.
The Government is in court tomorrow over its failure to implement age verification for pornography sites. Fingers crossed.
The EU is developing a new policy statement ( a “Communication”) on the fight against child sex abuse. Here is a link to my submission. It’s too long but there is an Appendix which summarises the main recommendations.
Do you think you are beyond being shocked? I thought I was too, but I’ve just been reading about the “Kentler Project” . For 30 years the authorities in West Berlin intentionally placed homeless children in the care of known paedophiles. Details are re-emerging in the wake of publicity about an enormous police operation getting underway in Germany, perhaps involving up to 30,000 people drawn from German-speaking communities.
I’m not sure the UK’s IICSA Enquiry or the 1997 blockbuster “People Like Us” by Sir William Utting ( which, among other things, looked at how poor management systems had allowed paedophiles to infiltrate children’s homes), can match anything like Kentler but that is not saying much as the Rotherham, Rochdale and other cases remind us.
It’s a funny old world.
Governments bang on about the unacceptable nature of some of the stuff that regularly appears on social media. They call on the platforms to do something about it and, immediately, a whole army of predictable voices rise up to claim this presents a terrible danger to free speech. Those elements truly living in a deluded bubble often go a great deal further, suggesting it is all part of a (usually) undisclosed plot by Governments to…..you know the rest. You can fill in the dots without my help.
But just look what has been happening in the last week or so and listen to the silence.
9 days ago an initiative called “Stop Hate For Profit” launched an appeal to advertisers, asking them to halt further expenditure on Facebook until the end of July. Why? Here are their own, unedited words
“From the monetization of hate speech to discrimination in their algorithms to the proliferation of voter suppression, to the silencing of Black voices, Facebook has refused to take responsibility for hate, bias, and discrimination growing on their platforms.”
Who are some of the moving forces within Stop Hate For Profit? The NAACP and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) are two powerful and highly respectable US civil rights bodies and they have gathered about them several other heavyweight organizations as part of an impressively larger effort sparked by the Black Lives Matter movement in the wake of the murder of George Floyd.
Unilever (the largest spender on advertising in the world) has joined Ben & Jerry’s, Verizon and North Face in saying they are withholding their patronage. Today Coca-Cola joined the gang along with Honda and Hershey’s, the largest sweets manufacturer in the USA. According to some reports Twitter is being added to the list of boycotted companies and the period may extend beyond July.
Imagine the intellectual contortions going on in some people’s heads. On the one hand, if you believe in a free market economy in which private companies are at liberty to express their tastes and preferences in terms of how and where they spend their own advertising budgets then none of this is in the least bit worrisome or troubling. But on the other…
Only last month Mark Zuckerberg proclaimed Facebook won’t be the “arbiter of truth”. This sort of slippery, political language hints at desperation. It won’t wash. It won’t fool anyone. Everybody knows Plato cashed in his shares and left the company years ago, along with Leibniz and Sir Karl Popper.
Facebook is not conducting a philosophy seminar in Oxford. Facebook is a fully engaged actor. What it does shapes and affects outcomes on the rough hewn streets of our cities and beyond. Facebook cannot be neutral or Olympian when it comes to spreading stuff that kills people. It cannot ignore behaviour which causes injury.
You cannot hold yourself out as being concerned to make the world a better place and at the same time eschew interventions that will actually make the world a better place.
What people expect from Facebook can be stated in plain language. Common decency. If that is just too difficult for the company’s present management to handle they should make way for a new set of brains and wiser hands.
The dangers of allowing companies to step in and insist on Facebook and others upping their game could threaten diversity as it drags social media platforms back to a comfortable centre. I have to say, right now, I for one would welcome a bit of that. I am fed up with being forced to worry about edge cases when so much in the middle is wrong. If anything, what Unilever and others have done is remind everybody why we need internet regulation to be based firmly on clearly stated, public policies which are enforceable by courts not advertisers’ whimsy.
Meanwhile let’s see if Facebook decides if it can, after all, get into a bit of “arbiting”.
If you click here you will see a copy of a letter I sent today to Information Commissioner, Elizabeth Denham CBE, the UK’s chief privacy enforcement official.
In the letter I suggest the fact that the Government called a halt to the implementation of Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act 2017, (DEA) appears to have convinced porn companies they can carry on as before for at least another year. Other businesses that engage in the provision of sites, apps or services intended only for adults seem to think they too have been awarded an extended, child-harming holiday.
All of them are mistaken, at least in principle.
My letter is designed to see how far this principle might be able to propel the Commissioner to act to make the internet safer for children sooner.
There are two fundamental points about Part 3 of the DEA.
First, it only applies to commercial pornography sites. As already mentioned, there are several other types of adult sites, apps and services which can put children at risk. For them Part 3 is substantially if not wholly irrelevant.
Secondly, reverting to commercial pornography sites, let us recall Part 3’s quite specific purpose. It was intended to create a regulator with powers which would allow it to influence the behaviour of businesses ordinarily outside the reach of UK courts. All the porn sites that matter are based overseas. They have no significant asset base in the UK.
The regulator would be able to bring such sites to heel by attacking their income streams. Ultimately, if necessary, the sites themselves could be blocked.
The Government said they will bring a Bill at or around the time they publish their final response to the Online Harms White Paper. We still have no idea exactly when that will be. Covid and Brexit are set to dominate British politics for ages. However, even if the Bill appears, as promised, “sometime this year”, it likely will not pass until next year, then the processes of getting a new regime established will begin.
Things could be “speeded up” by the wholesale copying of the BBFC’s work but, assuming the Government remains true to its word, there will be the new powers to integrate vis-a-vis social media platforms. Then there’s privacy. It seems likely there will be changes there as well. Either way we could be looking at 2023 or beyond.
That is completely unacceptable but some people who were focused solely on porn said they weren’t so bothered because once the excellent Age Appropriate Design Code kicks in the Information Commissioner can go after the sites. A regrettable delay but not a huge one. We can live with it. No.
The problem is the Code, brilliant and necessary though it is, actually is not concerned with adult sites, apps and services. It follows if the Commissioner can do anything it has to be rooted in the basic law. And if that is the case we do not need to wait until the Code comes into force. The child-harming holiday is cancelled.
Obviously, the Commissioner does not have at her disposal the same powers that were going to be given to the BBFC. But if, whether in a letter or as the outcome of a formal investigation, Elizabeth Denham were to make clear that certain sites or classes of apps, sites or services operating without robust measures to restrict children’s access were operating unlawfully, or were likely to be, it may have some beneficial impact. It might shame the owners into acting earlier or cause other businesses on whom they depend to withdraw their services or support.
We can but hope.
PS If you read the letter all the way to the end note the point about perilous and deceptive marketing.
Pornhub is not an aid, comforter or reliable source of advice, guidance, support or information for children who are anxious or inquisitive about sex, their own sexuality, or relationships. Neither is any other porn site I know about.
The fact that some children may say they go to sites like Pornhub because they are anxious or curious about sex, their own sexuality and relationships, or are looking for support or guidance in relation to such matters, is simply a terrible indictment of the poverty of 21st Century societies’ approach hitherto. It does not give Pornhub a tick.
There has probably never been a time when it was exactly easy for parents or schools to find the right way to help children and young people through that part of their lives when sex, their own sexuality and relationships loom so very large in their developing consciousness and self-awareness.
There has long been a tendency, at least for parents, to dodge the “difficult conversation”or, consciously or otherwise, to delegate it to “someone else”.
The problem is today the “someone else” is often a ubiquitous, money-making business with so few scruples that, despite acknowledging none of their materials are suitable or meant for children they do nothing to prevent children accessing them. Even though they could. Pornhub is the 800lb gorilla in the room (with apologies to the many gorillas who may be reading this).
The internet has changed everything. Dramatically.
One of the world’s leading commentators in this field, Gail Dines, said she almost (note, “almost”) felt nostalgic for the porn of the early 1980s and before.
“There has always been porn but there has never before been a porn industry such as that which the internet has created.”
Gail points out the porn today’s parents and grandparents saw when they were younger is likely to be a million miles away from Pornhub’s everyday offerings both in terms of its nature, quantity, ease of access, which is constant, and cost, which is zero.
Like their parents and grandparents some of today’s children might say “porn has done me no harm” or “I can handle porn” or “porn helped me, it was useful” . These are not convincing reasons for continuing to accept the status quo.
Many of the problems associated with porn use, particularly excessive porn use, do not manifest themselves immediately. They may not do so until a person reaches their mid-20s or it could be later than that.
And by the way, in several studies substantial numbers of children said porn was either the most upsetting thing they had encountered online, or it was one of the most upsetting things. Alternatively they felt that while they, personally, were “ok with it”, they felt really strongly other, younger kids, shouldn’t be looking at it. “Just saying, for a friend”.
When I was a kid, in England the legal age at which you could smoke was 16. As I reached the magnificently mature age of 15 I could see no good reason to wait an extra year to do something that was so obviously enjoyable and cool. What did these idiotic oldies know about anything anyway? They had never even seen The Beatles live. Or The Rolling Stones. I had done both. Twice. I had a unique insight into the meaning of life. That proved it.
The pleasures of smoking were plainly wasted on the gerontocrats. They just needed to step aside. And this was at a time when lots of people claimed the harms associated with smoking were vastly exaggerated or non-existent. Twenty years later I realised what a terrible mistake I had made and after a lot of pain I quit.
The adult world is charged with doing stuff that is in children’s best interests, even when not all children see it that way.
Children do not have a legal right to access porn. Children have a legal right to good advice and access to a range of sound, inclusive and comprehensive information about and support in relation to sex and sexuality.
States have a legal obligation to provide that and it would probably be best provided in the context of a public health and education framework. However, an inescapable part of states’ obligations includes a duty, on the basis of the best available scientific advice, to restrict children’s access to stuff that harms them. Pornhub and the like harms kids.
When introducing age verification to restrict children’s access to porn it is essential we get right and respect both children’s and adults’ right to privacy. And we certainly should not see age verification as a silver bullet.
Yet it definitely is a bullet. I think a big bullet. It is a bullet aimed specifically at denying the Pornhubs of this world any role in determining the sexual socialization of the young.
So it wasn’t an empty threat. President Trump did it. He signed an Executive Order which, in essence, seeks to change the law on platform immunity, as conferred by s.230, Communications Decency Act 1996.
It is doubtful the Executive Order will withstand a legal challenge. There is not only the obvious 1st Amendment point, the fact is Trump is trying to change the substantive law by fiat. Congress has to be involved in any alterations to substantive laws of this kind. By the time they got around to it, if they ever did, the Congressional and Presidential elections would be over and who knows where things will be? Not me.
I am not going to waste words on stating the obvious about the President of the United States. Let’s just say I am sure I will not be alone in finding the speed with which he moved on this topic was in such marked contrast to his lethargic approach on a broad range of issues concerning children’s rights and children’s safety on the internet that, well, words don’t fail me but what’s the point?
There is a great deal that is wrong with s 230. It does need amending but the crudely political and partisan way the President has engaged with the topic means in the weeks ahead there is going to be a great deal of sound and fury which will signify nothing much of consequence. The dust needs to settle before it is clear how, if at all, the children’s lobby can best intervene.
I have no problem with social media platforms maintaining their immunity providing they can demonstrate that, mindful of the available technology, they took all reasonable and proportionate steps to eliminate or reduce breaches of their terms and conditions of service, in particular in respect of behaviour harmful to children, and doubly so where that behaviour is anyway illegal.
On the question of responsibility for fact-checking and truthfulness, children’s groups do have a dog in that fight. We all want children to grow up aware of the importance of basing their judgements and actions on accurate information in respect of events or matters which impact on their own and other people’s lives.
Given the huge dominance of the internet as a source of information, perhaps particularly in the lives of young people, allowing or being indifferent towards algorithmic pulls towards sensationalised, distorted rubbish or downright lies cannot be a good starting point. Internet companies have built these systems which reach into all our lives. They cannot now turn their backs on what follows on from that.
How you solve this problem is not easy or obvious but I absolutely do not think it is acceptable for a company to argue that just because someone claims to be a politician they can say whatever they like on their platform. “All it needs for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing” (Edmund Burke).
Last Thursday Facebook made an announcement about its plans for Messenger. In truth the substance of the announcement concerned great stuff I thought they were already doing, at least on their main Facebook platform, so discovering they were now going to do the same on Messenger was a little underwhelming.
But first, if you click on the link to the announcement you will see it is headed
“Preventing Unwanted Contacts and Scams in Messenger”.
So we’re clear, this is not about the content of messages in Messenger, at least not insofar as it relates to known illegal images of child sex abuse, the sort that have previously been picked up by PhotoDNA.
Then we see these important words
“As we move to end-to-end encryption, we are investing in privacy-preserving tools….. to keep people safe without accessing message content.”
This bears out two things: it ain’t about content, illegal or otherwise, and they are going ahead with it.
Their mind is made up. They know exactly what they are doing and why they are doing it. The only Damascene moment they are likely to experience will have been the result of legislative action or the threat of it in a jurisdiction which is important to their business.
Don’t get me wrong. As I suggested earlier, the measures they are proposing are welcome. However, even Alex Stamos, former Chief Security Officer for Facebook, could only bring himself to say it was a “good start”. Maybe he is as underwhelmed as I am.
The software tools Facebook say they will be deploying in Messenger will analyse metadata to pick out dodgy patterns. Once detected, an alert will be triggered on the end user’s screen and maybe there will also be an intervention by the company itself. But what these tools will not do is spot known illegal content being exchanged between users.
Facebook must find a way to convince independent and respected experts that its move to encrypt Messenger has not worsened the lives of children who have suffered the tragedy of being sexually abused while a camera was trained on them. If Facebook cannot do that I really don’t know where it is going to leave the company’s reputation. And I don’t mean just with people like me.
Finally, be aware, dear readers, some of the members of the Silicon Valley chapter of the Sons of Anarchy are working on ways to encrypt metadata. Can you see where this is going? Can you see the next pressure point? When other messaging services announce they are encrypting users’ metadata, rendering it unreadable, how will Facebook react?
What this highlights and reminds us is Facebook is really a victim of its previous policy of transparency and US laws on reporting. To that extent it is “unfair” to single them out or pick on them. There is a larger and wider issue to be faced about how modern societies tackle the emergence of strong encryption. And we need to be emphatic about that. It is a societal issue, not a technological one individuals or companies can decide for themselves.
If there has been a rise in the demand for encrypted services it has been caused by the previous bad behaviour of companies like, er, Facebook. Surveillance capitalism did not drop from the skies, but when it got here it was compounded by the bad behaviour of certain Governments, as Snowden reminds us. However, we cannot let the previous bad form of Governments and companies create an insoluble problem for the rest of us.
“What’s in a name?” is a recent publication from Demos (full disclosure: many moons ago I was a founding trustee of Demos but I haven’t had much contact with them of late).
The Demos authors did a great job describing the conceptual differences between privacy, anonymity and encryption. They also acknowledged the interconnectedness of these ideas. However, they then decided to press ahead with a discussion about anonymity without really engaging with that interconnectedness in any depth. That was a grave error.
It wasn’t the only problem. Here is a sentence from the summary that makes no sense.
“We examine two identity systems – those of the Government Digital Service’s ‘Verify’ program and Facebook.”
I went through the Verify process recently. Quite a palaver. It took several days although, to be fair, that could have been due to a lockdown-related surge in demand. Whatever the explanation, it was impressive and thorough.
You can create a phoney email address in seconds then proceed to open an account with Facebook. You could “borrow” someone’s mobile phone for a few minutes or use a burner and you’re in.
Back in 2013 Facebook acknowledged it was “powerless” to stop under age users from joining their platform. Data suggested more than a third of 9-12 year olds in the UK had a profile with them despite the specified minimum age being 13. Globally for the same demographic it was thought the proportion was around 25%.
In the intervening 7 years while Facebook has declined in popularity with that cohort another Facebook owned brand, Instagram, has taken over and the proportion of under 13s on it is thought to be higher. How can anything which allows that to happen be dignified by describing it as an “identity system”?
Facebook collects usage data to sell targeted ads based on behaviourally driven algorithms. It’s not complicated. The fact that you can use your Facebook login to connect with other online services and these other services accept that as a “credential” is absurd. Lies built on lies again hardly qualifies as an “identity system”, much less one which can produce any kind of anonymity worthy of the name.
Another major problem arises when the authors speak about “liberal democracies” as if these could be addressed as a distinct group of nations that can be held to uncontested standards unique to “liberal democracies”.
Just read the “Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace” Remember the kind of thinking reflected there remains widespread in and around Silicon Valley, including among the highest levels of leadership of Big Tech as well as their acolytes and wannabes. External pressures, let’s call them “defeats”, might cause them to have to give ground from time to time but the underlying values, outlook and orientation remain.
The Declaration makes no distinction between “liberal democracies” or any other kind of government. It does, however, chime neatly with Ronald Reagan’s famous quote from ten years before the Declaration appeared. In 1986 he said
“The nine most dangerous words in the English language are ‘I’m from the Government, and I’m here to help’ “. I imagine when Reagan said that he was speaking about the Federal Government of the USA not the Politburo of the Soviet Communist Party.
Big Tech is a world inhabited by people who think the absence of restraint means the same as “freedom” or “liberty”. It is a world where “permissionless innovation” has the status of a deity guarded by a priesthood who take their job seriously. However, the only recognisable religion these notions really fit with is buccaneering free market economics.
It’s quite a marketing trick to make your business’s financial interests appear to be synonymous with intoxicating words like “freedom” and “liberty”. If they buy it, and many do, you neatly recruit free speech and free expression advocates as your infantry, sometimes without even having to hand them a dime but there’s lots of dimes available if needed to bolster their forward march or rearguard actions.
According to The Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2019 Democracy Index, the UK ranks 14th in the world democracy stakes. We are classed as a “Full Democracy.” The problem is a great many of the “Declarationists” would laugh at the faintest hint of the UK being thought of as a “full democracy”. Alternatively they wouldn’t care whether it is or not. These dudes live according to their own lights. Because they can.
The ideologically driven exponents of tech freedom and liberty, as well as the money driven ones, might grudgingly admit there were some differences between Oslo (No.1) and Pyongyang (164th) but would not allow these much if any relevance in a discussion about policy for the internet because all governments are evil or tend towards evil. If they aren’t evil today they could be, probably will be, tomorrow.
So they go ahead and use strong encryption. They seek to popularise it and spread it around as much as possible. The Rule of Law is a cute idea but only if the laws and the way they are administered meet with the approval of the priesthood. See above.
Against this background, discussing how one might remain un-named when commenting on the Government’s latest blunder seems …… I was going to write “trivial”, but it’s not. The ability to be anonymous sometimes can be important. Yet somehow being anonymous in a toxic sea seems a lot less important than some would make it out to be.