Guest Blog: Michael Sheath, Lucy Faithfull Foundation

Michael Sheath has worked with sexual offenders since 1987. He was a  Probation Officer for 10 years followed by 25 at the Lucy Faithfull Foundation and is a staff trainer on the ‘Europol ‘COSEC’ course, dealing with the psychological drivers of CSEM viewing.

Below is something he wrote which I found very interesting. Hope you do too.

The Internet: the Chevrolet Corvair of the late 20th Century.

In 1960, the Chevrolet car company launched the Corvair, the car they described as ‘revolutionary.’ Unlike the vast majority of cars available at the time, save the VW Beetle, it had the engine in the rear, ‘where it belongs in a compact car.’ The Corvair was designed as an economy vehicle, costs had to be low. Rear engine cars steer and handle in a different way to cars with the engine in the front; the Corvair was no different. If the driver of any rear engine car heads into bends at too great a speed the car has a tendency to keep going in the same direction, the rear end might spin round, the car might tip over. Most rear engine cars overcome this tendency to oversteer by adding complexity (and cost) to the suspension. Chevrolet engineers wanted to add an anti roll bar, the accountants believed it would make the cost of the vehicle commercially unviable. The engineers and accountants eventually came to a compromise: they would manage the problem of the Corvair’s potentially tricky handling by adjusting the tyre pressures.

Pause for some rhetorical questions: How many people reading this have a car? How many people who have a car read the manual that came with it? How many of you know your tyre pressures to within 2lbs a square inch? How often do you check them? The Chevrolet Corvair’s recommended tyre pressure were 14lbs at the front (astonishingly low) and 28 at the rear. Did American owners of the Corvair check their tyre pressures? If they did not, or if they set them at what they thought was a conventional setting without reading the manual, the car’s handling in extremis would defeat anyone who wasn’t a rally driver.

Between 1960 and 1963 stories began to emerge of accidents involving the Corvair where the vehicle overturned on bends, or crashed into trees on winding roads which other vehicles navigated safely. A journalist called Ralph Nader began to ask questions about the design of the vehicle, and the commercial decisions that led to the sale of vehicles he was to describe, in a book of the same name, as being ‘Unsafe at Any Speed.’ Legends around Nader’s experiences once he started publishing articles and asking questions abound. He believed he was being followed, he asserted private detectives had been hired to get ‘dirt’ on him, he was approached by very attractive and very young women in bars who he suspected had been set onto him. Ultimately, General Motors, Chevrolet’s parent company, paid him $425,000 to settle a privacy suit.

Later, using professional drivers, and using Corvairs set up to the standard prescribed in the manual, it was shown that the Corvair was no more dangerous than cars of the same era. The danger came from operator error:  most people don’t read the manual, most people drive cars in the same way, regardless of their handling characteristics, most people aren’t as au fait with the technology as those who design and provide it.

The philosophical and moral point was: if General Motors knew how the average motorist drove, and how the average motorist was unlikely to read the manual, at what point, if ever, did that knowledge make them liable for deaths and injuries of people misusing the product?

Nader’s work on car safety, and what he thought was the inherent complacency of the major manufacturers led, ultimately, to a movement that sought to improve the design features of motor vehicles. Safety features such as seat belts became desirable rather than being viewed as a burden to the manufacturer or an additional cost to the consumer. Manufacturers made designed-in safety features a selling feature, rather than something that threatened their margins. Legislation, long resisted by manufacturers, was brought to bear. I remember when compulsory seat belt wearing was introduced into the UK, how some of my acquaintances resented it, asserting they’d ‘rather be thrown clear’ in an accident.’ ‘Thrown clear’ through the windscreen was perhaps not what they had in mind. Forty years later, the thought of driving a car without a seatbelt is anathema, and manufacturers boast of the active and passive safety features of their products. Legislation and mandatory controls are applied without much obvious resistance. Defective vehicles are subject to recalls where the manufacturer is obliged to remedy any faults without charge.

What then, of the Internet? Or more precisely, what of the various social media and communication platforms that sprang up to populate the space available in the online environment? Facebook’s ‘Terms and Conditions’ has 14,000 words therein. If you joined Facebook, did you read them? I didn’t, I was just keen to get out there, on the road so to speak, and just fast forwarded to the bottom of the page and ticked the box. Anyone joining iTunes in 2011 signed a document comprising 56 pages. Did they read it? Probably not, I’d say, yet both Facebook and iTunes customers might get into some difficulties, on either of those sites having been given fair warning, in the strictest legal terms, of what they were agreeing to. Hundreds of other Apps, platforms and products operate on the same basis; there is nothing unique about any company named here.

I used to run awareness sessions for parents as to how they might keep their children safe on line. At the Q and A, so many would raise issues about their child’s experience of bullying or trolling ‘on Facebook’, or other social media sites, this when I was dealing with Primary School children. ‘But you have to be thirteen to be on Facebook’ was met with surprise or disinterest, ‘everyone else is on it, so …’ was the typical response. The same would apply to may other apps, or platforms, or providers: the consumer doesn’t read the manual, and the vendor doesn’t seem too concerned that they haven’t, save for providing a tick box that allows them to say that they have.

The difficulty, I think, is the cultural void between provider and purchaser, or provider and customer, or provider and user. Someone, I can’t recall who, suggested that if a service was free, then the user was going to be monetized, somehow, and will have agreed to be so by signing terms and conditions they probably didn’t read. Whose fault is that? At what point does an unintended but foreseen consequence become part of a business plan?

If a photo sharing site is used to share pictures of kittens, we all applaud the opportunity, if the same site is used to share child sexual exploitation material, who do we condemn? We punish, of course, those who utilise the site for nefarious and abusive purposes, but we don’t seem to hold the site to account. Incompetent or reckless drivers of the Corvair may have been responsible for their own demise, but once Chevrolet knew how the vehicle was handled in the real world, as opposed to on the test track, where ought their responsibility lie? The answer was forthcoming, the second generation Corvair had adjustments made to the suspension that the engineers had lobbied for in the first place.

People who work for providers tend, of course, to be highly literate in the technology, aware of its limitations and pitfalls, and skilled at negotiating them. Like the professional drivers road testing the Corvair without difficulty, people on the inside of tech companies know what they’re doing. The average driver didn’t read the manual, didn’t have great skills, and was at risk of crashing the car, just as the average user of social media or communication products doesn’t read the manual and gets into trouble online. Children, despite Utopian notions of their being digital citizens, are intrinsically vulnerable to exploitation in an environment that remains largely ungoverned.

My question to parents at online safety briefings was always the same, always with the same answer: ‘What would you do if a man you did not know knocked at your door and asked to spend the evening in your thirteen year old daughter’s bedroom, just chatting?’ Every parent in the room would snort at the absurdity of the idea, but they tended to agree they had no knowledge at all of who their children spoke to or engaged with in the online environment. They simply assumed competence and agency on the part of their child. Again, does the blame rest with the user, or with the producer who must, by now, be able to make reasonable assumptions about how the product, whatever it is, might be used and abused?

In retrospect, the history of the Corvair’s development serves as a cypher for the motor industry’s seemingly reluctant conversion from ‘freedom’ to ‘safety’ as a whole. Nader pioneered notions of consumer rights. Now, safety is built in. We have, of course, heard that term being used by commentators about the tech industry. Eventually, standards of safety, and active intervention of the state in the online sphere may be archetypal, just as they are in the motor manufacturing industry, and we may look back on the early decades of the internet as a criminogenic environment that traded the safety of the vulnerable for commercial advantage.