Fight fire with fire. Digital with digital.

Could it be in anyone’s interest for there to be a widespread belief that with little or no difficulty someone could go online and commit or plan crimes with zero or very close to zero chances of being caught and brought to justice? The answer is obviously “no”.

Could it possibly be in society’s interest to allow environments to be created which effectively operate outside the law and on a very large scale?  Again“no”.

At the beginning of the helter skelter, chaotic development of the internet, at any rate in the liberal democracies, national governments had no say or any way of putting a brake on major parts of what was happening. The speed of technological change outpaced the capacity of the established methods of making public policy. We relied on “self-regulation”. It didn’t work. Big time.

Now there is a much better, deeper  and wider understanding of the digital world. It is no longer the semi-magical or mysterious and exclusive property of a priestly class.

These same governments in the liberal democracies are therefore beginning to assert themselves and with huge backing from the public, precisely because of what happened in those earlier days, and is still happening maybe even getting worse in some respects.

No linear equation

If there was evidence that the volume of crime being committed online is growing might it “simply” be a matter of saying to Governments “you must now employ, train and support more and better police officers” (irrespective of current or likely near-future economic conditions)  or, to the companies “you must now employ, train and support more and better human moderators” (ditto)?

Again the answer is “no”. Why?  Because there is no linear equation between the number of humans engaged in a given activity and, in this context, making the online environment safer or better for children, more respecting of their rights. Why? Because technology itself breaks the link.  The scale, speed  and complexity of the internet makes several of the old analogue ways completely redundant.

We used to say “fight fire with fire”. Today we have to “fight digital with digital”. In other words with tools equal to the task or, if not exactly equal, as close  to equal as they can be. “Don’t turn up to a gun fight with a butter knife”. Is that any better? You decide.

In detecting copyright and trademark infringements we have done just that. Digital tools are in there inspecting hundreds of millions, maybe billions of transactions every day.

In relation to the detection of spam, viruses and a whole host of malware we do likewise. We even allow programmes to read our emails to determine if they should go to our Inbox. The programme may instead conclude the email has been sent by someone who is almost certainly a crook then divert it to Junk where in all likelihood it will never be seen.

Yeah even unto end-to-end

Even with Apps we are told are end-to-end encrypted, a similar kind of internal examination can take place. Please read Meta’s assurance that while they have just looked at something they deem suspicious in a message sent to you via WhatsApp, Meta cannot see the content of any accompanying message “because of end-to-end encryption”. 

And btw all the processing involved in that WhatsApp operation takes place on the device. It’s called “client-side scanning”. It’s what Apple said they would do although they have yet to announce when they will actually start doing it. Watch this space.

Bear in mind WhatsApp/Meta is a company once fined 110 million Euros for providing misleading information to the European Commission. So you have to wonder who is checking to see if the assurances in respect of WhatsApp messages are the whole truth with nothing of material relevance left out, whether intentionally or not?

It is no longer acceptable for us to be put in a position where we only have a company’s word to go on. We don’t do it with banks, insurance companies, public utilities and several other types of public-facing enterprises,  some of which belong to ancient businesses which had deeply hallowed and trusted names.

The internet was once, de facto  an exception to all the rules of governance and transparency only because nobody could figure out how to do it. It need not be that way any longer. Trust has evaporated. Transparency demands there be some kind of external arbiter to reassure the public all is well. All is as it should be. All is as advertised.



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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