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Who’s really exploiting children on the Web?

Under the cover of ‘protecting kids’, censorious groups are demonising the internet as a dark and dangerous place.

Nathalie Rothschild

Topics Free Speech

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Never have emailing, browsing the internet and updating your Facebook status seemed like such sinister pursuits. Yesterday, on the seventh annual international Safer Internet Day (SID), we learned that by using the internet in these ways – which most of us now consider to be as normal as opening the post or chatting on the phone – we could be exposing ourselves to predatory criminals, perverts and bullies. Therefore, says SID organiser Insafe, you should Think B4 U Post.

As you may have gathered from that wannabe down-with-it, text-speak slogan, the campaign is primarily aimed at children and young people, who are being urged to use online technology and mobile phones in a ‘safer and more responsible’ way. But, in reality, Insafe is sending its message to all of us, and the SID campaign is entrenching a view of the internet as a generally sinister, dangerous, dodgy space – a space where all of us are not only at risk of being exploited by others but where we ourselves pose a danger, by willingly, but unthinkingly, posting information online, including on social networking sites.

No doubt there are cases of children being misled by adults online and of young people who have been manipulated into giving out information about themselves which they later regret. No doubt some adults post material online – like drunken photographs or personal phone numbers – which they later regret. But what is really taking place in the promotion of a ‘Safer Internet’ is the exploitation of these occasional problems for the purposes of problematising and more tightly controlling everyone’s use of the internet. The real exploiters of children are the campaign organisers, who are trying to push through controls in the name of ‘protecting young people’.

For instance, the UK Council for Child Internet Safety – a coalition of industry, charity and government groups – used the opportunity of SID to launch a campaign targeted at children as young as five. The campaign uses cartoons – in which we get to follow ‘the adventures of Lee and Kim’ – to tell kids not to give out personal information online. In one clip, Lee and Kim play an interactive online game where a cute rabbit gets them to type in details such as their age and what school they attend before a superhero called Sid (geddit? S-I-D, Safer Internet Day) pops out of the computer screen and tells them that ‘top secret stuff’ should only be given to people they trust. (The question is, has Sid been vetted? His tights and cape do look a bit pervy…)

The cartoon explicitly depicts adult users of the internet as potentially problematic and a danger to children. And SID has spawned wider campaigns that will affect adults’ internet use, too. Numerous information security firms, wanting to get in on the SID action, have published new research and issued top tips on internet safety. And in conjunction with this year’s event, the UK’s Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP), which is behind the Lee and Kim cartoons, has teamed up with Microsoft to release a customised version of Internet Explorer that will ‘provide users of all ages with direct access to CEOP’s internet safety advice and guidance’. These advice pages cover issues ranging from cyber bullying and sexual abuse to viruses and ‘inappropriate content’.

The contemporary compulsion to be seen to be promoting internet safety becomes clear when you look at the signatories to the EU’s new safer social networking principles: they include giants such as Bebo, Facebook, Google, Microsoft Europe, MySpace and Yahoo! Europe. It is precisely because social networking sites are popular and difficult to control that internet safety campaigns are now honing in on them, with Facebook and Bebo at the top of their list.

Certainly, young people growing up today have no lived experience of life before the social networking craze and are generally more willing to reveal details about their private affairs, feelings and social lives to hundreds of ‘friends’ online. It is worth getting young people to consider what effect the shifting boundaries between privacy and openness will have on their personal identities, how it affects the way we interact with friends and family, and how it impacts on the social sphere.

But the impulse to regulate and monitor people’s online behaviour – whether through awareness-raising campaigns, legislation or technical tools – does not spring from any kind of sociological concern. Instead, it is precisely the fact that all sorts of people – young and old – are negotiating their identities and interactions in a relatively free and experimental fashion online that worries the authorities and various authoritarian campaign groups. They consider the relatively free and open space of the internet as Too Risky and in need of some form of external, internal or voluntary regimentation.

It seems that only if we use the internet in a way that pleases and soothes the authorities will they be willing to leave us alone. Because the flipside of the panic about web users as potential prey or potential psychos is the equally warped view of the internet as a brave new world of citizen engagement, where Twitter is talked up as the saviour of democracy and where Facebook is seen as the place to be for politicians desperate to ‘connect’ with the electorate. We should use the internet responsibly to become ‘better citizens’, the authorities tell us, not for fun or games or flirtations.

The panics around paedophilia, ‘stranger danger’, bullying, theft and so on predate the massive expansion of the internet and the social networking craze, but projected on to the internet such social panics and fears are magnified precisely because the web is out of the sights of the watchful authorities. What we get up to in front of our computer screens, the millions of photos and messages we send every minute of every day, the data we share with each other – this is the ‘top secret stuff’ that Sid and his real-life incarnations at CEOP and elsewhere jealously want to control.

If we kowtow to the idea that the internet is inherently dangerous, and accept the idea of having widespread external- or self-regulation across the internet, we will truly be giving up some important stuff – like the freedom to choose what to say, when to say it, and who to say it to.

Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor of spiked.

Previously on spiked

Martyn Perks said that, when it comes to online censorship in the name of child protection, the government is not considering the evidence. Nathalie Rothschild asked: ‘Who’s afraid of Facebook?’ Helene Guldberg dismissed the widespread childish panic about the next generation. spiked and O2 ran an online debate on Young people, mobiles and social networking. Or read more at spiked issue Free Speech.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Free Speech

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