Some Post-Snowden Thoughts 1


First of all let’s assume none of the companies that own or supply large parts of the internet’s infrastructure, that manufacture internet-enabled devices or provide online services, voluntarily co-operated with any nation’s security services to facilitate the large scale surveillance which, thanks to Edward Snowden, we now know was taking place.

If such businesses were compelled to help because of a law with which they were obliged to comply, and similarly if they were required by law to keep quiet about it, that’s one thing. Voluntarily to help and keep schtumm, that’s something else. Moreover it is a something else many people appear to believe. I would be interested to know if it is true. It needs to be authoritatively confirmed or denied. The ravings of the paranoid, delusional world of the fact-lite blogosphere will not be enough.

However, whatever the answer is it does rather throw into sharp relief a number of the points made against children’s organizations when we, for example, asked for age verification. One of the key reasons given was that it would involve collecting and keeping even more information about a person than is collected now. Hmmm. Is that possible? Let’s leave on one side that such data collection would be allied, not to selling anything but to ensuring the law is not being broken or that in fact a given individual complies with the company’s own Ts&Cs or other relevant policies.

But are we seriously being asked to believe companies that know what movies we like, what colour we paint our kitchen and the appliances we have in it, who know who we are having an affair with or who we will soon have an affair with, who know about our sexual orientation, our football club, our hobbies or if we are logging on from an atypical location or with a new device and so on are unable, with a high degree of accuracy, to determine who is using their service who shouldn’t be because of their age?

It seems there is almost nothing the big internet companies don’t know about us and if they don’t it is abundantly clear that several state security agencies do, at least in the sense that they have the raw data. OK we will soon learn whether or not these agencies were entitled to have it and I am not suggesting even for a moment that we legitimize the mass collection of data on everyone simply to ensure that 12 year olds cannot open a Facebook account. Rather the point I am making is that arguments about the impossibility of doing this or that to protect children online are now exposed as being exceptionally threadbare. Truly it is a question of priorities. And behind priorities there usually lurks money and not much else.

The internet businesses that have resisted the children’s organizations who called for age verification turned out to be unable to resist the State. OK. Not an equal contest and the one does not bless the other but excusez moi if I dwell on the irony for a moment. These companies can hang tough with the major threat posed by tiny, penniless children’s groups but are powerless to confront and defeat people their own size or bigger.

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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