President Sarkozy, internet exceptionalism and other things


As President Sarkozy reminded us last week at the e-G8 in Paris, Governments keep coming back to the theme of children and the internet. It’s not hard to see why. Such concerns cross all cultural and national boundaries. They are deeply rooted in our human psyche. All decent people, not just parents, acknowledge we have obligations towards the young. Any and every opinion poll carried out on the subject confirms this.

Some scoundrels in a number of countries’ political classes undoubtedly do seek to use  online child protection as a cover for less noble ambitions to control other things on the internet. But it is a gigantic error for anyone to point to this and dismiss the whole cause as therefore being merely a stalking horse for repression. 

Combustible cocktail

One of the hallmarks of modern civilizations is the extent to which they exert themselves to protect their most vulnerable citizens.

Thus, unless and until the happy day arrives when Governments can honestly say they are broadly satisfied with the arrangements made to keep children and young people safe when they go online, unless and until those opinion polls begin to turn because people themselves see real improvements, the issue will remain as a hugely combustible cocktail. It has the potential to flare up at any time and with very unpredictable potential outcomes.

Don’t stop what you’re doing

No one in the mainstream has ever argued that adults should stop doing or enjoying adult things simply because it might not be appropriate for children or young people to witness them or participate.

However, in the real world we have for some time insisted on limits or degrees of separation. Through reasonable compromises a more or less satisfactory and widely accepted equilibrium has been established, although there is little doubt it is fraying a bit at the edges of late. This is one of the reasons why, in the UK, we have the Bailey Review. Of which more anon.

A little inconvenience is accepted

A number of the real world rules we have devised to give effect to the separation of non-adults from adult pursuits have always caused a little annoyance to some who are outside their intended purview. Last time I was in an airport bar was in San Francisco. I had to show the waiter my passport before I could get a beer. Believe me when I say there is no way on sight I could be mistaken for an under-21 year old. Sadly. But having to show my travel document wasn’t the greatest hardship I have suffered in my life.

The delay in slaking my thirst caused by the request to show my ID was comparatively brief. I accepted it because I understood its underlying purpose. Elsewhere companies have gone even further. Most supermarkets and other shops in the UK that sell alcohol or tobacco are so keen to avoid any possibility of breaking the law they have adopted an “Under 25” rule. This means even though the legal age at which one can buy alcohol and tobacco is 18, if you look as if you are less than 25 you will be asked for proof of age.

Hello internet exceptionalism

So now let’s turn to the internet. Here everything seems to break down. Special pleading is the order of the day. Internet exceptionalism is a phrase that is starting to be bandied about. It no doubt derives from its better known cousin American exceptionalism. This is a theory which seeks to explain why in the USA economic and social conditions similar to those which arose in Europe and elsewhere appeared never or rarely to produce similar political or jurisprudential outcomes.

Internet exceptionalism is a lazy get out. No one’s buying it. Even Eric Schmidt, Chairman of Google, in part of his response to President Sarkozy’s remarks at the e-G8 conference conceded there were problems with the internet that needed to be resolved. His point was simply that Governments should stay well away and let the industry do it under their own steam. I wonder how much more time industry thinks it needs? At what point might they say

Ok. We gave it our best shot. Go ahead and regulate with our blessing.

A lot of people in the online space seem to be not in the least bit interested in even attempting to achieve in the virtual world the same kind of adult-child segregation we all now take for granted in the real world. Or if they are interested it appears to be at a very general level with few obvious practical illustrations and zero sign of any urgency behind it.

That’s just the way it is. That’s the internet for you. Adapt. Get used to it.

Same old same old

For almost every single problem area that is identified as a child protection issue we get the same limited range of answers: better education for children and young people and more engagement by better informed parents.

Everybody I know in the child protection world is in favour of both of these things. I have been listening to this mantra since the mid 1990s. However, I cannot be the only person to have noticed that, very conveniently, these are the least expensive, least complicated and least demanding options for the companies that rule the virtual roost.

This does not represent a true multi stakeholder approach. And it is also predicated on a very narrow vision of modern families and modern children which simply does not correspond with the full range of complexities of the real world. With bits of it, certainly. But not with other large chunks that cannot in all conscience be overlooked or ignored.

As the Financial Times commented in a leader yesterday

There is more than a suspicion that the technology industry is arguing its own book in condemning all efforts to tighten (internet regulation). Equating industrial-scale piracy of copyrighted works on peer-to-peer networks with freedom of expression in China and the Middle East – as some did in Paris – is not credible.

The world does not need a panoply of new internet regulations but the existing national laws must have force. The technology industry should acknowledge it, not just in word but in deed.”

Hello again Mr President

Whatever the complicated, or not so complicated, politics behind President Sarkozy’s e-G8, it marks a new point of departure, a new high water mark.

The final communiqué issued after the actual G8 was a long way from Sarkozy’s radical and rude rhetoric but it was also a long way from anything I have ever seen before from a gathering of this kind. Already EU Commissioner Neelie Kroes has made clear her intention of following through. And we will be right behind her.

Hello Bailey Review

In the UK the Bailey Review, looking at the Commercialization and Sexualisation of Childhood, was launched nearly a year ago. It is coming to the end of its work. The final report is expected very soon. The Review was initiated by the Prime Minister. Everyone has high hopes that its recommendations will be acted upon. Coming in the wake of President Sarkozy’s speech and all the attendant media coverage, serendipitously, the report will now have even greater moment.

About John Carr

John Carr is one of the world's leading authorities on children's and young people's use of digital technologies. He is Senior Technical Adviser to Bangkok-based global NGO ECPAT International and is Secretary of the UK's Children's Charities' Coalition on Internet Safety. John is now or has formerly been an Adviser to the Council of Europe, the UN (ITU), the EU and UNICEF. John has advised many of the world's largest technology companies on online child safety. John's skill as a writer has also been widely recognised.
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