It is not often someone who works in the field of online child safety in this cold, wet corner of Europe gets the opportunity to hear from and participate in a discussion with their counterparts in countries such as Djibouti, Mauritania, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Algeria. Such was my good fortune earlier this week when I attended a hugely impressive gathering in Cairo.
The conference was organized by the Egyptian Ministry of Communications and Information Technology in conjunction with the ITU’s Regional Office.
We heard about a genuinely new idea (or at any rate new to me) which had been developed by some geeky youngsters – clearly future millionaires all of them – to help in the fight against bullying but otherwise what struck me very forcibly was just how similar the issues were that each of the different countries’ representatives aired.
We happened to be in Cairo but if you closed your eyes and listened only to the words we could just as easily have been in Colchester, Cardiff, Coleraine or Clydebank , or Cannes, Cologne or Cincinnati for that matter.
There was a widespread acknowledgement of the huge advantages which the internet had brought to the world in general and to children and young people in particular but there was also the familiar anxiety about how children’s natural curiosity and innocence could lead them into situations online with which many were ill-equipped to deal.
How do we help parents understand the internet better so they, in turn, can help their own children? How do we help teachers get up to speed and stay up? How do we mobilize the political will and resources to make sure we reach every child and every school not just those who live in urban areas or in better off neighbourhoods? How do we mobilize the political will and resources to make sure law enforcement have the right tools? What kind of technical measures are available to assist with the project and how well do they work? What can we reasonably expect companies to do voluntarily and what part does regulation play?
Now to be sure there are differences between countries and mostly these can be explained by reference to local factors. Moreover the differences can illuminate larger truths and add depth to our wider understanding – which is why it is important to continue to research and document them – but typically the differences are not measured by orders of magnitude. As levels of internet usage and connectivity speeds increase in a country so the same broad patterns seem to emerge everywhere on the planet.
Is this so surprising? Not really. But it is worth reminding ourselves of that fact from time to time.
It is worth reminding ourselves not just for its own sake but also because therein is a stark warning. In the UK and most of the rest of the developed world we know how poorly we have coped with some of the challenges the internet has thrown up. Yet we have a quite well developed infrastructure in terms of law enforcement, and educational and social services systems. Many countries in the developing world do not and the risk, therefore, is obvious. And very worrying.