Children are not pawns in a geo-political chess game

Nobody I know or work with wants to ban the use of strong encryption in mass messaging environments. Nobody I know or work with wants to break encryption or allow any form of “back doors” (meaning covert, undisclosed or unlawful ways of looking at content by any state agency or anyone else for that matter).

But a range of people and interests, me included, are advocating for some rules to be introduced so as to minimise the possibility of encryption being used to harm children. We know there are privacy-respecting  tools which can detect threats to children without interfering with encryption. Ever mindful of the rules of proportionality we think companies should be required to use them.

Opponents of this approach speak of the child protection tools to which I refer as representing a form of “mass surveillance”. This is provably false so the wonder is why people keep on saying it and why different parts of the media keep repeating it as if it were the incontestable truth.

One often also hears two additional scaremongering arguments deployed against the position children’s groups are advancing.

We must avoid the “splinternet”

One of the original ideas associated with the development of the internet was that it would become and remain a single world system.

Cui bono?  To state the blindingly obvious, it is much easier and cheaper for companies and organizations to have to run a single set of rules on a global basis i.e. identically in every country. This minimises compliance costs. Minimises corporate aggravation.

Crudely translated what this actually means in practice is the desired goal is for the internet to become and remain a system which operates in a way which is consistent with decisions of the US Congress and US Supreme Court. Why do I say that? Because I have never heard the Internet Society, ICANN, the EFF or any of the major lobby groups active in this area argue any Big Tech company  or other organization should defy, ignore or circumvent any aspect of US Federal law. This is smart because there is zero possibility of that happening if the company or organization in question is incorporated or based in the USA or operates there. This covers most of the key ones. They may contest stuff in the US court system if they disagree with it but ultimately it always ends the same way.

The fact is, however, for practical purposes in modern times at a technical level, the internet has always been a single system in the sense that the underlying infrastructure is  actually or pretty much identical in every land. It is linked to the TCP/IP protocol.

What we are generally or usually arguing about is what is known as the application layer i.e. what happens on top of the TCP/IP protocol. What the Apps and programmes actually do. How we, the end users, experience the internet.

And here it has never (or very rarely) been the case that Big Tech and most of Small Tech has knowingly or intentionally defied, ignored or circumvented the national laws of  any country in which they provide a service. Think about the laws in France and Germany which ban representations of the Nazi swastika. And the laws of those countries which ban all forms of advertising to children. Insults to the King or G*d. It’s a very long list.

In extremis, what has happened is some companies have refused to offer their services in a number of places precisely because they are unwilling to comply with local laws but do not want to go so far as knowingly breaking them. A perfectly coherent, principled position.

Nobody actually lives globally

Let’s be clear. Nobody actually lives in the cloud. Nobody actually lives globally. We can speak poetically, romantically, about such things as we proclaim the indivisibility of the Brotherhood of Persons but everyone is in contact with terra firma and wherever the rubber hits the road we obey the local rules. There is no equivalent of diplomatic immunity for internet users and we have well-established mechanisms for resolving conflicts of laws.

We don’t have a single world government for a reason. We do not have any mechanisms for establishing and delivering a single set of rules  for matters of this kind and that is so clearly the case you have to wonder what’s really going on when someone suggests otherwise or professes a belief we might reach such a happy condition any time before hell freezes over. Companies will behave in accordance with local laws when there is a fixed or single menu but go à la carte when it’s voluntary. Voluntarism has led to too many children being harmed.

The bad precedent

The other ludicrous proposition bandied about is, howsoever well-intentioned it might be,  no legislature anywhere in any liberal democracy should do anything which could be seized upon by a tyrrant to justify their own actions. In a similar vein, no code should be written which, with a bit of tweaking or no tweaking at all, could be applied to or facilitate an evil end. And this in a world where Pegasus software exists and is sold for a profit.

Isn’t this part of  the whole story of the internet? Did anyone ever intend or want digital technologies to create the surveillance state or surveillance capitalism? No they did not. Yet here we are. But now we must stop? Protecting children using digital technology in the way described above is the red line we must not cross?

What this amounts to is telling  a Mum in Peterborough or Pennsylvania that you refuse to use tools to protect her children because a mendacious nut-job in Pyonyang will claim he is only copying you. But he isn’t copying you. He’s a mendacious nut-job.

We cannot hand him and people like him the power to determine the pace at which we make the online world a safer and better place for children in our own countries. Children are not sacrificial pawns in a giant geo-political chess game. It is also bordering on a self-aggrandising or narcissitic obscenity to suggest digital technologies as such are somehow detached from and independent of large trends and forces which are determining the nature of the lives led by a substantial proportion of the people living and breathing today. Important? Definitely. But we need to retain some sense of perspective.






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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