A collective failure of leadership


We are just coming out the other side of a major media feeding frenzy. There has been nothing like it since the arrest of Pete Townsend. If Parliament had been sitting and key Ministers had been in town I can’t imagine where things might have ended up (internet industry leaders please note).

With Townsend his celebrity status was the trigger and the spur for all the ink that was spilled, the screens and air waves that were filled. This time around a lot of the coverage focused on Google and what they can and should do to make the internet safer for children. Google might feel they took an unfair share of the flak but by and large the media picked up and reflected a more rounded appreciation of the underlying complexities of online child protection. Everybody knows this involves a great many companies not just one. Good news for children providing it leads to action. I believe it will.

Bridger and Hazell

How did it roll? First we got the Stuart Hazell and Mark Bridger verdicts. Everywhere you turned the media was full of murdering paedophiles, or that’s how it felt, and somehow the internet was mixed up in it.

There was no connection at all between Hazell and Bridger. They had never met or corresponded. They lived at opposite ends of the country. It was simply a coincidence that their cases were heard so close together. Yet that dark serendipity helped create a huge imprint in the media and in the public’s consciousness. The number of editorials, op ed pieces in newspapers and speeches by top politicians was unprecedented. I sense that something important has changed. Irreversibly.

Through the no doubt partial lens of the media we learned a great deal about Hazell and Bridger, their lifestyles, how the internet in general and search engines in particular appeared to have fed or encouraged an interest in violent child sex abuse. Nobody suggested the internet alone could create men like them, but might its existence be providing important routes to harm that were previously unavailable, replacing or displacing those that were? If so, can we close down all those pathways or deflect people from them?

Sad, sad moment

In amongst this and adding greatly to the heightened sense of angst, on 28th May we had the UK’s top online child protection cop, Peter Davies, CEO of CEOP, acknowledging on ITN’s 10 o’clock news bulletin that Britain’s police are unable to arrest everyone they know is involved in trading child abuse images. Seemingly they’d like to, but they can’t. They don’t have the capacity. This was a hugely depressing moment. Here was the British state, in effect, putting its hands up to say it can’t cope. Given that we are global leaders in online policing what does this tell us about might be happening, or not, elsewhere? Many eyes in many countries will be closely following what happens next in Blighty.

So in the UK we have a choice: either we find new ways to intervene more effectively in this space or we just have to tell everyone that the distribution of child abuse images over the internet is now an everyday part of modern life in the 21st Century. Get used to it.

I’m pretty sure our Prime Minister is not going to say the latter but to achieve the former industry has to do more. No one else can. Even if we weren’t in times of austerity I don’t think anyone who is seriously engaged really believes we could ever employ enough police officers to make a major dent in the current mountain of cases, never mind those that will get added to the pile as the months progress. Technology has to show the way.

Strengths and weaknesses

This is where one of the most frequently mentioned supposed strengths of the internet – the fact that it has no single point of management or control – is also the source of its greatest weakness.

People like John Perry Barlow can get carried away, intoxicated, by their own dizzying rhetoric about a magical new, non-hierarchical world they think is emerging in cyberspace, that they want to emerge.

However, the problem is when things go wrong online sooner or later the rubber actually hits the road very much in the real world where flesh and blood citizens, journalists, politicians and commentators feel they have a legitimate right to speak because the consequences are felt in their city, maybe in the house next door or the room upstairs.

Thus, even if the words might occasionally get mangled, issues conflated or not be fully understood, that raw voice of the people in the end will insist on being heard.  Imperfectly expressed, somewhere in the frenetic din made by the Great Unwashed there is usually an essential truth that cannot be dismissed or ignored. We call this democracy. It has rough edges, particularly at times of high emotions. Until the planet is all on Prozac that is not going to change. We do not live in a world administered by benign and ever wise Techno High Priests. Long may that continue.

Evidence and lobbying

Of course when responding to any public policy challenges we need evidence wherever we can get it. Evidence is always the best guide to action, but you don’t always need evidence for everything.  Some things are either right or they are wrong. Moreover how many times have companies launched products or done things they later pulled back from or amended? Risk taking is admired and rewarded. Occasionally, at least where children are concerned, the precautionary principle should kick in even if that too might be considered a tad risky in the other direction i.e. in this case from a business perspective. If a safety measure is tested and turns out to need adjustment we can call that learning. 

Companies may be able to lobby governments on this or that particular point, they can wine, dine and flatter key players and opinion formers but, as events in the UK over the past weeks have shown all too vividly, the status quo is very far from being settled or stable. It could all collapse like a house of cards, in others words suddenly and rapidly.

The role of big companies

Which brings me back to Google. Or rather it brings me back to Google, Amazon, Facebook, PayPal, Apple, Microsoft, BT, Telefonica, BlackBerry, Sony, Vodafone, EE, Cisco, Siemens and so on. The list is not that large.

If these companies do not manage somehow to deal with the legitimate expectations of governments and the voters who put them there, in respect of something as fundamental as children, then I would say in the medium to longer run they have zero chance of withstanding the random battering ram of events. It will be no good any of them saying to their shareholders

It wasn’t our fault. We’re not the internet.

It’s true. No individual firm is the internet but as each of their share values progressively crumble it will most certainly be their fault. Their fault that, for all their cleverness, money and seeming omnipotence, they failed to find the formula. Collectively and individually they did not provide the leadership that was needed.

The challenge

The challenge is easy to state, if difficult to deliver.

People are increasingly unwilling to accept that all the bad stuff that goes around on or is connected to the internet is the inevitable price that has to be paid for all the good stuff.

So how does the internet industry convince the great majority of us that they are straining every muscle, brooking no obstacle, as they try to sort out online child protection? How do they get to a point where, in the future when something goes wrong online and a child is injured, as inevitably will happen, journalists and citizens will express regret and be anxious but nevertheless will also understand intuitively that likely it happened despite the fact that the internet companies had done their level best to avoid it? There will be no knee jerk reactions because there will be a widely accepted view that everybody has gone the extra mile and then some.

Right now we are a long way off that golden moment.

In my next blog I will publish my ideas for some practical steps that could be taken by many different players so as to move closer to it.

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. http://johncarrcv.blogspot.com
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