The Tyranny of Binaries: Child Protection, Sexuality and Safety Online.

Is it just me or does the schedule for the Internet Governance Forum conference in Sharm El Sheikh seem
to pop with the words youth, security, protection, empowerment, child? At least
two sessions every day focus on these themes.


I attended a session today titled The Global Path for
Ensuring Online Child Protection and Safety: Effective Strategies and Specific
Action. This session seemed like it could throw up some interesting discussions
since it had a balance of civil society groups, NGOs, the technology industry
and child rights and family values advocates. Arriving a little late (very
slowly snaking registration queues!) I was a little surprised by a heavy panel
- 14 speakers! - and a relatively sparse
audience. (Perhaps more people were at the ITU (International Telecommunications
Union) Child Protection Online session running parallel to this one.)


All the issues were put squarely on the table by Dorothy
Atwood, Vice President -Public Policy, and the Chief Privacy Officer of the
telecommunications company AT&T, and the issues principally hinge on how to
ensure children's safety online without necessarily compromising freedom of
expression or privacy. Atwood's presence was ostensibly to provide an industry
perspective on child protection. She said that in her experience, child abuse
and violations of privacy are similar inasmuch as neither can be dealt with
through a control of information flows. 'Blocking and controlling information
is just an under-inclusive way to deal with the problem' she said, and 'the
solution cannot be about more parental controls'.


In her view, data and identity management, and learning to “orient”
your identity online were critical skills children needed to be taught even as
they are being introduced to the internet. 'All of us have to recognize our
responsibilities and rights in online spaces' is how she put it.


Atwood gave examples of how AT&T is piloting
technologies that are “more creative” rather than resorting to blanket clamps
on information and content. She mentioned the technologies that help young
diabetic people to remember to take their insulin - basically a software that sets reminders for
children to take their medicine; it emerged from research showing that children
are embarrassed by 'mom having to call the school to tell you to take your
medicine', and that they felt empowered by not being
babied by their parents.

In another example, mobile phones can be programmed to send
out gentle reminders when a user locates herself by mentioning an address or
location - 'are you sure you want to share your address' sort of thing. And
these can be developed and customized further.


Atwood's point therefore was about shaping and being creative
with technologies so that they actually speak to children. 'We cannot be
satisfied by a harm-based approach and the technology industry can be creative
in coming up with relevant technologies' was her parting note.


However, John Carr, longtime proponent of children's online safety and representing  eNACSO was not happy with 'creativity'. He immediately responded saying that industry
is 'lazy' about regulating child pornography and pedophilia. 'We live in an
imperfect world ... we cannot go into the heads of each child and ensure they
are equipped .. so we need to take preventive steps' he said, towards
preventing child abuse in its various internet forms.


In the UK, internet service providers (ISPs) have been given a mandate to regulate content
as they see fit, which prompted a question from the audience about how child
protection measures conflict with the US' First Amendment that protects
freedom of speech and expression. Carr’s response was strong: the First
Amendment
does not protect the right to child pornography. According to Carr,
the US is the biggest
producer of child porn as data collated from 1997 reveals; the problem is that
industry and ISPs do not display the will to address the problem, and the
solution has already been demonstrated by the UK where ISPs are allowed to regulate
online content.


No one seemed to want to mess with that, and just as I was
raising my hand to ask a question and make a small intervention, I was relieved
to hear Dorothy Atwood respond equally sharply and firmly that Carr’s view did not
factor in the reality of children’s own engagement with sexual content and
experiences online; what about the prevalence of sexting for example? Atwood
believed that there are grey areas when it comes to sexuality online that
cannot be rationalized away and that it wasn’t necessarily industry’s role to
address it. She also reminded Carr that risky behaviour online and offline are
linked and that what puts children at risk needs to be viewed holistically
therefore. On the topic of sexting another panel ‘Assessing the role of the
Participative Web in Youth Empowerment’, David Miles of SWGfl UK mentioned an investigation into
sexting in schools (commissioned in order to devise a strategy to address it
based on the voices of young people) and found that ‘youth were really blasé
about it’. Which made me think – why on earth aren’t the powers-that-be actually
listening to kids then, instead of just paying lip service to it? Is there
something young people know about sexuality online that adults don’t? Goodness,
imagine that!!? If young people are indeed blasé about sexting, or are excited
by the sexual possibilities online (aren’t young people in every generation
excited by the possibility of sex?) why can’t adults understand that rather than
paint all child sexuality with the broad brush of victimization?


Dorothy Atwood seemed like a rare fresh voice on the panel
because she engaged with the idea of young people’s agency and sexuality. By
contrast, the other industry perspective from a representative from the
Symantec Corporation, emphasized a rather specific role for the technology
industry: we will provide the software to protect you but you have to learn
about cyber safety as well. Symantec is willing and happy to support families,
NGOs and governments by providing the technology, but families do need to
educate children about online behaviour as well.


It seems like the tension and flexing between laws and
government control on the one hand, and the role of industry on the other,
dominates the discussion on child protection and safety online. Why is there no
youth perspective in this and why was there no youth representation on this
panel?


In the Egyptian case, as articulated by Hany Fathy Georgy,
Senior Chief Prosecutor of the Office of the General Prosecutor of Egypt, and
Hala Tadros of the Cyber Peace Initiative, the conflict is simple – freedom of
expression on the one hand and the need for child protection on the other. My
question is why these two in particular are pitted against each other? While
children may be at risk from child pornography online, is not the greater risk that
of sexual abuse within the home and by known adults around a child? What babies
do we risk throwing out with the bathwater by creating such definite binaries? Why
are online and offline risks seemingly disconnected? Why isn’t the picture
muddied by children’s freedom of
expression compromising their own online safety? Perhaps its because
constructing a child’s sexuality as something that can exist outside the
discourses of a dormant-adult-sexuality-waiting-to-bloom, or victimization, that
is so very hard for adults to grapple with. I’m reminded of something my friend
Jac said at another meeting (and I’m paraphrasing here): maybe the issue really
is that the bodies of children, and the concern for children’s sexuality, are in
fact territories where multiple other rights, interests and values compete and
vie for space.