An email to a Professor

I recently had a brief but perfectly polite exchange with a distinguished Professor of Geekery at a Very Old University. I had read somewhere that he thought a principal reason why children were sexually abused was poverty therefore, wait for it, if the UK Government was serious about addressing the issue of child sexual abuse it should increase child benefit rather than try to mess about with regulating the use of encryption.

I had never thought of this guy as being bonkers so I wrote to him fully expecting him to deny or qualify that statement. Not a bit of it. So below is a slightly edited version of my reply to him.

“I will take any wager you might care to make that there is zero evidence to support the idea that there is any correlation between income and sexual abuse. To be charitable, that is a misreading of what the research says. And I’m always charitable. (Poverty makes everything worse but the sexual abuse of children cuts across all known social, economic and cultural boundaries.).

(I also note the similarity of the words you used in your email to me with the words) used by the German Pirate Party, in particular Patrick Breyer MEP.  (I wonder who used those words first or maybe it was a co-creation but), either way, the alignment speaks volumes as does the low rent ad hominem willingness to misrepresent what people like me are aiming to achieve when they try to address some of the unintended consequences of the spread of E2EE, in particular by its integration into mass messaging systems.

We are a long way from Phil Zimmerman’s world or the days when PGP was only used by a handful of businesses and a few people in the margins of the nerdhood. The speed, scale and technical and jurisdictional complexity of the modern internet have, in effect, created whole new classes of challenges. An unintended consequence but an exceptionally unhelpful one.

I don’t doubt elements of the security services  in some countries where the Rule of Law has no meaning  would like to do all kinds of unacceptable things to spy on their citizens but to use them as an excuse for refusing to help sexually abused children in the UK or other liberal democracies  is shocking. We cannot uninvent some of the tools that are out there e.g. Pegasus software and who knows what else. The bad guys will do what they like when they like. They are not waiting for permission or cover from anyone before executing their own dastardly plans.

The sexual abuse of children predates the internet by a considerable number of years. However, as with many other kinds of undesirable activity,  for the reasons given the arrival of the internet and its associated digital technologies have completely transformed the landscape.

It is a significant political failure that Governments in the liberal democracies did not step in sooner to insist on a different and better way but at least now  some of them are trying to catch up, to atone for their earlier sin of omission. Large parts of the tech community, by contrast, seem to be trying to hang on to as much as possible of the status quo (or better still the status quo ante). Shame on them.

It looks as if you have never met or considered the position of a victim of child sexual abuse who has had the additional misfortune of discovering (often much later) that an image of them being sexually abused has found its way on to the internet. This can be highly consequential for them. It expands and magnifies the  effects of the original abusive acts.  Rapid action  to locate and delete the offending images is therefore justified in its own right and without more.  Except in the rarest of cases locating and deleting such images should never be contingent on external or other factors. If, through lack of resources, momentary or otherwise, the police need to catch up with investigations, arrests and prosecutions they can and should but that is no reason to leave a child’s abusive images swirling round the internet for an avoidable millisecond longer.

The victims depicted in images have a right to privacy and human dignity.  Do they not? Where do they weigh in the balance?

For many victims it can be essential to any possibility of making a reasonable recovery, to know that effective action is being taken to eliminate or reduce the possibility of an image of their pain and humiliation potentially being available to anyone with an internet connection – including their neighbours, school friends, colleagues in the office or on the factory floor.

It most definitely does not help victims  if they come to realise or believe tools exist which could rapidly locate and delete their images but companies are refusing to  use them, even if, perhaps particularly if,  that refusal is based on a  professed worry about how Kim Jong-un and the like could use similar tools to hang on to their oppressive, totalitarian power in the countries they rule.

Capitalist enterprises usually act based on calculations about how any given decision will impact their bottom line. The rest is spin and packaging. A range of not-for-profits act based on their own adopted political beliefs or objectives. That makes this a legitimate contested space not one from which the hoi polloi are excluded or deemed not entitled to a view merely because they couldn’t tell the difference between a TCP/IP stack and a bowl of custard.

To suggest or imply that we advocate for action against the images rather than against the root cause, sexual abuse, is not worthy of you  or anyone. I wish there more police officers  and others doing preventative work,  or  apprehending offenders, more social workers and psychotherapists to work with and support victims, teachers to help children understand better how to avoid being abused but I am not willing to  put on hold action against the images until that happy day arrives. For these reasons I resent you saying I have “misdirected” anyone’s attention away from engaging with those other types of actions. It is not either or. We need both.

The distribution of child sexual abuse imagery is a downstream consequence of an earlier failure to prevent the abuse happening.  I and people like me are trying to tackle that downstream consequence whereas you seem to think only the prior causes are worthy of attention. To put that slightly differently, it’s everybody else’s fault, not the techies’. Everybody else should do something about it, but not us. A bit like those sad individuals who blame society for their ills rather than accept personal responsibility for their own actions.

While we are all grateful for the good stuff the internet has brought in its wake, we are not grateful for the bad stuff. Neither are we willing simply to  suck it up and pay a price in perpetuity for its very obvious failures. Politicians in the liberal democracies are not simply being impertinent when they try to address the problems techies and geeks have created for the rest of us. And they do so on behalf of the great majority of people who believe we’ve had enough of the self-interested bullshit coming out of Silicon Valley and its penumbra of acolytes and  co-dependents.”


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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