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We can contribute to childhood e-safety

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We can use identity and authentication (ie “recognition”) technologies to improve Internet safety, if we use them correctly.

It is good to wander out of the comfort zone from time to time and expose your ideas to more acid tests. Hence I went along to the seminar on “Childhood and the Internet – Safety, Education and Regulation” in London in January. I was there for three main reasons:

  1. I am interested in the evolution of identification and authentication in an online environment, and protecting children is one of the cases that brings the mass market practicalities into sharp relief.
  2. We have clients who are developing recognition services, and it seems to me that if these services can contribute to a safer environment for children then we may have something of a win-win for encouraging adoption.
  3. Protecting children is an emotional topic, and as responsible member of society it concerns me that emotional responses may not be society’s best responses. This is a difficult subject. If, as technologists, we make any comment about initiatives to protect children being pointless or even counterproductive we may be accused of being sympathetic to criminals and perverts hence we need to learn to engage effectively. I’m not interest in childhood e-safety theatre, but childhood e-safety.

The seminar was kicked-off by Simon Milner, the Policy Director (UK and Ireland) for Facebook. He started off by noting that Facebook has a “real” names policy. Given my fascination with the topic, I found his comments were quite interesting as they were made on the same day that the head of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, was interviewed in Business Week saying that the “real” names policy was being amended.

One thing about some of the new apps that will come as a shock to anyone familiar with Facebook: Users will be able to log in anonymously.

[From Facebook Turns 10: The Mark Zuckerberg Interview – Businessweek]

Simon went on to say that the “real” names policy, setting to one side whether it means anything or not, is a good thing (he didn’t really explain why and I didn’t get a chance to ask) and then talked about how children who are being bullied on Facebook can report the problem and so on. I know nothing about this topic, other than as a parent, so I can’t comment on how effective or otherwise these measures might be. To be honest, there were several talks that I’m not qualified to comment on so I won’t, other than to say I found some of the talks by the subject matter experts extremely thought-provoking and I’m glad I heard them.

The main discussion that I was interested in was led by Helen Goodman MP (the Shadow Minister for Culture, Media and Sport) and Claire Perry MP, who is the Prime Minister’s special advisor on preventing the sexualisation and commercialisation of childhood. The ex-McKinsey Ms. Perry attracted a certain amount of fame in web circles last year (just search on “#PornoPerry”) when she made some public statements that seemed to indicate that she didn’t completely understand how the internet worked, despite being behind the government’s “porn filter”. (I am not picking on her. I should explain for foreign readers that most MPs are lawyers, management consultants, property developers, PR flacks and such like and they don’t really understand how anything actually works, least of all the interweb tubes. Only one out of the 635 MPs in the British Parliament is scientist.)

Now, let me be completely honest and point out that I have previously criticised not only the “real” names movement in general but Ms. Goodman’s views on anonymity in particular. I think she is wrong to demand “real” names. However, as I said a couple of years ago,

I’m not for one moment suggesting that Ms. Goodman’s concerns are not wholly real and heart felt. I’m sure they are.

[From The battle of the internet security experts – Tomorrow’s Transactions]

This does not make her right about what to do though. Forcing people to interact online using their mundane identity is a bad idea on so many levels.

But that was the same month that the Communist party struck its first major blow against Weibo, requiring users to register their real names with the service. From that point, those wishing to criticise the Party had to do so without the comforting blanket of anonymity and users started to rein themselves in.

[From China kills off discussion on Weibo after internet crackdown – Telegraph]

I’m not suggesting that Ms. Perry represents a government intent on creating a totalitarian corporatist state that reduces us wage-slaves to the level of serfs to be monitored at all times. I’m sure her good intentions are to block only those communications that challenge basic human decency and serve to undermine the foundations of our society, such as MTV, but the end of public online space seems a drastic step. What has been the result of the Chinese campaign to end anonymity? What is the practical impact of a real names policy?

Once an incalculably important public space for news and opinion – a fast-flowing river of information that censors struggled to contain – it has arguably now been reduced to a wasteland of celebrity endorsements, government propaganda and corporate jingles.

[From China kills off discussion on Weibo after internet crackdown – Telegraph]

None of us, I’m sure, would like to see pillars of our society such as the Daily Mail reduced to the level of “celebrity endorsements, government propaganda and corporate jingles”. Perhaps there is now less crime in China too, but I have yet to discover any statistics that would prove that. I don’t want this to happen to Twitter, Facebook and The Telegraph web site (where it is my right as Englishman to post abuse about the Chancellor of the Exchequer should I so choose). So here is a practical and positive suggestion. At the seminar Helen said the “The gap between real-world identity and online identity is at the root of [the problem of cyberbullying]”. So let’s close that gap. Not by requiring (and policing) “real” names, but by implementing pseudonymity correctly. I wrote an extended piece on this for Total Payments magazine recently.

Now imagine that I get a death threat from an authenticated account. I report the abuse. Twitter can (automatically) tell the police who authenticated the transaction (i.e., Barclays). The police can then obtain a warrant and ask Barclays who I am. Barclays will tell them my name and address and where I last used my debit card. If it was, say, Vodafone who had authenticated me rather than Barclays, then Vodafone could even tell the police where I am (or at least, where my phone is).

[From Dave Birch’s Guest Post: Anonymity – privilege or right? – Total Payments : Total Payments]

As I said, I don’t just want to talk about doing something about cyberbullying and the like, I actually want to do something about it. “Real” names are a soundbite, not a solution. What we need is a working identity infrastructure that allows for strongly-authenticated pseudonyms so that bullies can be blocked and revealed but public space can remain open for discussion and debate. Then you can default Facebook and Twitter and whatever to block unauthenticated pseudonyms without insisting the kid looking for help on coming out, the woman looking at double-glazing options or the dreary middle-aged businessman railing against suicidal economic policies from revealing their identities unless they want to

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