A plague on all your houses?

In the beginning we all believed. The internet was going to end tyrrany, connect us to the whole of human knowledge thereby inevitably elevating public and political discourse, improving the accountability of institutions, while at the same time disrupting old business models and all this in favour of the little guy. Coca Cola adverts swam constantly across our field of vision. Heady stuff.

Bits of the original dream have come to pass. Much hasn’t. It’s some of the bits that haven’t which now concern me most but the thing is these bits are ones which are least likely to make money for anyone, or at any rate not any time soon.

If any of our now mega rich techno-elite could have found a way of raking in similar  profits from keeping down the level of online crimes against children, from eliminating harms to or the unfair commercial exploitation of children, it would already have happened. Done and dusted. But they were pulled in another direction. In the direction of the  dollar.

Days of innocence. Alliances formed

Nevertheless those prelapsarian conditions and expansive hopes explain why, for quite some time, there was a strong crossover between and intermingling of what we now see as consumer interests, human rights campaigners (privacy as a specific topic was a little way off), children’s rights advocates, the tech community and Governments in liberal democracies. Everyone appeared to be pulling in the same or similar directions.

True enough in the margins the police and security services soon realised something was not going exactly according to plan but maybe that bad stuff could be sorted out quietly between people of goodwill.  It didn’t happen. There just wasn’t enough money in it to tempt Big Tech or Small Tech from their settled path.

Then Government and Big Tech bungled things on a gigantic scale (hello Edward Snowden) upping the general  level of distrust by an order of magnitude, making it even harder for everyone to get on to a better tack. Cambridge Analytica didn’t help either.

Is it legal, is it ethical is it wise?

That used to be the test.

Now we know the overwhelming majority of businesses will routinely try to obey the law all of the time, but too many will exploit any and every bit of wiggle room to maximise the return on their investment. If that means sidlining ethics and wisdom they’ll do it.

The Tik Tok defence

Witness too the laughable stock reply,  first championed by Tik Tok when they were in a  tight spot.

“We meet industry standards”.

Er, yes, but does that take us any further forward? If the standards are rubbish or not doing the trick the fact that the industry has agreed them really cuts no ice.

We got into this position because for too long we relied on the idea of “self-regulation.”  We believed the industry would do the right thing because it was the right thing.  Governments just needed to stay out of the way. In the liberal democracies they did.

But industry didn’t do the right thing, or rather enough of them didn’t. The idea of self-regulation started fraying at the edges and gathered pace to the point now where it has become a thoroughly discredited idea. If a business does something on a voluntary basis, this is to be applauded and encouraged. But it is not and cannot any longer be the sole or serious basis for achieving the changes necessary on the scale necessary.

Divisions opened up

It’s hard to say when exactly the splits started to open up in the original, idealistic coalition described earlier, and it is still a bit fuzzy around the edges, complicated by old friendships, old alignments and contemporary money.

But without question elements of the tech community have decided that, in the world of zero trust in which we all now live, which they or their comrades help create, the only sure way or the best way to keep surveillance capitalism and the surveillance state at bay is to retreat behind technical barriers.

Turning your back on the hoi polloi

“A plague on all your houses”

That’s the message being sent by key elements in the world of tech to Governments everywhere, without distinction or discrimination.

If you are highly educated and tech-savvy this is a walk in the park. You can defend yourself in ways others simply can’t.  It fits perfectly with a very American idea, best encapsulated in their survivalist and frontier traditions, and in the words of Ronald Reagan in 1986 when he said

“The nine most terrifying words in the English Language are ‘I’m from the Government and I’m here to help’.”

Its internet corollorary was published in 1996 in the hyperbolic, narcissistic and achingly elitist  “Declaration of the Indpendence of Cyberspace”.

Only Government action can achieve certain things

The free market cannot deliver everything. Who knew?

I am trying to think of any important advancement in the quality of human life for the mass of the people which has not in the end depended upon Government action. I’m having trouble coming up with one. Environmental and health standards, education, breaking up monopolies, road safety, workers’ rights, equal rights, not to mention the defence of the realm. It’s a very long list.

So really, those who think encryption and techno twists and tricks are the answer are giving in to or embracing cynicism, defeatist cynicism, giving up on democratic politics. They are saying even in countries governed by the Rule of Law it is impossible to come up with transparency, auditing and accountability mechanisms which will guarantee our privacy while at the same time limiting the extent to which encryption can be used by criminals to threaten the welfare of others, in particular in this instance children.

Richer folk were always able to find a way out of problematic situations. One  that worked for them. These days being uber tech savvy also separates you from the herd.

“Bang the bell Jack. I’m on the bus.”

Or you can think of this as a modern version of the law of the jungle.

“If you’re dumb enough to get tricked by fraudsters or you let your kids get caught by paedophiles, make lewd images of themselves, spend too much of your money or their time on online games or looking at bad shit, you are to blame. Nobody else. Educate yourself. Don’t inconvenience me.  Get lost.”.

No. No. No. To  borrow a phrase from one of Reagan’s favourite people.

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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