Dissenting Factions Within the Internet Safety Community

24/10/2013 14:40 BST | Updated 23/01/2014 23:58 GMT

In a blog post entitled Beware of the Internet Safety Industrial Complex Larry Magid, highlighted the factions that have emerged in the Internet safety world.

On one side is the 'Internet Safety Industrial Complex' faction that includes representatives of companies that sell internet safety technologies, i.e. Internet filtering, monitoring and age verification technologies. Members of this faction also include internet safety experts who promote the idea that internet safety technologies, along with education and parental engagement are key factors in mitigating the risks to children and young peoples' wellbeing online. Larry Magid urges readers to 'beware' because he alleges the 'Internet Safety Industrial Complex' faction exaggerates the nature, scale and extent of online risks to children and young peoples' wellbeing online.

The other faction, of whom Larry Magid is one of the key figures, is the 'Anti-Media Panic' faction, relies on selective pieces of research, which serve to substantiate their position. The central tenets of the Anti-Media Panic faction is that the majority of children are not at risk online, and, in fact any perceived risk has its genesis in ill-informed media hype generated to a large degree by the Internet Safety Industrial Complex faction.

When and why did these factions emerge and what effect is it having?

Let's start with the Anti-Media Panic faction, who, for more than five years, has been talking about the media coverage of online child safety issues and describing it in terms of "media panic". This narrative can be traced back to the mid 2000's, but it really coalesced in 2008, in the aftermath of the publication of a report by the Internet Safety Technical Task Force (ISTTF). The ISTTF was a multi-stakeholder Task Force convened in response to a request by the US Attorney Generals to explore whether or not the age verification solutions available on the market at that time were fit for purpose, i.e. could provide the global internet industry with scalable, commercially viable, proportionate, low-cost, privacy preserving, age verification methods that would augment the safety of children online.

The Task Force was comprised of representatives from industry, law enforcement, child safety advocates and technical experts and it met several times over a one-year period. The meetings were convened and hosted by the Berkman Institute at Harvard University. The circumstances that prompted the US Attorney Generals to ask for this Task Force to be convened were that Myspace - remember them? - had used the Sentinel solution to scrub their database of users against a data set of known sex offenders. MySpace found approximately 40,000 sexual offenders and there were some procedural delays in handing over this information to the appropriate authorities. The Attorney Generals were not happy about this situation and felt that industry could be called upon to do more to protect vulnerable children and young people online and so the ISTTF was convened.

Prior to the ISSTF the TV series "To catch a predator" and similar programmes were being broadcast in the US and in other countries around the world. There was a great deal of media hype and concern about both predatory behaviours and online bullying. The newness of the Internet meant that the norms of digital parenting had not yet been established and the media stories were frightening, which led to heightened levels of concern and a lot of lobbying activity on the part of both factions.

From the Internet industry's perspective, the intense media focus on predatory behaviours and cyber-bullying and the related threat of legislation that might result in a requirement to deploy internet safety technologies, in particular, age verification solutions, was not an attractive prospect. In their view internet safety technologies would equate with overly burdensome compliance costs. An even bigger concern was the threat that the Internet industry would effectively be 'deputised' by governments to play the role of guardian and law enforcement officer to the children using their services. From an operational perspective, there were no standards, policies or protocols developed with respect inter-operable age verification solutions, which might differ from one country to the next, and would require different integrations was a technical and resource nightmare. Furthermore, there was no clear legal framework that stipulated who would be liable, if a company deployed an age verification solution but a child was still harmed by a predator? Corporate lawyers were very concerned and from an industry perspective there was a lot riding on the outcome of the ISTTF.

From the perspective of civil libertarian groups the prospect of instituting Internet safety technologies was viewed with a high degree of scepticism. In short, internet safety technologies were regarded as a Trojan horse that would facilitate governments introducing surveillance that would further erode adult's freedom online. Civil libertarians argued that Internet safety technologies, would have a negative impact on children's privacy, erode the possibility of anonymity, impede innovation and be a disproportionate response to an issue that would be better managed by parents. Ultimately, the state should not intervene in family life and any attempt to do so would encroach on basic human rights and would be unconstitutional.

The findings of the ISTTF suggested that there were no viable, scalable, age verification solutions available on the market at that time - 2008 -that would be capable, from a technical perspective, of providing the internet industry with age verification methods. Furthermore, the ISTTF team of researchers examined the issue of predatory behaviours and surmised, on the basis of data collected from law enforcement officers, that the victims of online predatory behaviours had the following profile: aged 13+ years of age, from troubled backgrounds, were equally at risk offline as online and that age verification solutions would not mitigate the risks to their wellbeing because they were knowingly engaging with adults online. They also explored research findings related to cyberbullying and determined that age verification solutions would not mitigate the risk of harm associated with bullying.

Needless to say, the internet industry breathed a collective sigh of relief. What emerged post publication of the ISTTF report was a more strident Anti-Media Panic faction, comprised of commentators, researchers and civil libertarians. Armed with the findings of the ISTTF report, this faction began to describe the media's coverage of internet risks as unfounded and symptomatic of a media panic. At the outset, the ostensible aim of the Anti-Media Panic faction was to re-calibrate the debate in the media about the risks to children and young people's wellbeing online. Although the Anti-Media Panic faction is not funded directly by the internet industry, a number of the organisations and programmes of research conducted by people aligned with the Anti-Media Panic faction are funded by the internet industry. The Family Online Safety Institutes annual conferences became one of the key venues where the views of the Anti-Media Panic faction are shared with others.

Members of the Anti-Media Panic faction hold the view that with respect to the online risks to children safety there is little or no substance to the claims that the majority of children are at real risk online, any more than they are offline and they rely on the ISTTF and subsequent research to substantiate this position.

To question suggestions that society should be concerned about, or that the internet industry should deploy internet safety technologies to minimise, the risks children encounter online the Anti-Media panic faction asserts that these concerns are merely the product of a media panic and are not based on statistics.

The Anti-Media Panic faction's ideology is premised on the following pillars:

• Technology alone will not address the complexities of keeping children safe online. Technical solutions are not the panacea to online risks nor are they a substitute for good parenting.

• Parents need to play a bigger role and must be more engaged. The products and services internet companies produce are not substitutes for good parenting.

• Serious programmes of education need to be developed. Education and good parenting rather than technical solutions are the key to minimising the risk of harm to children and young people online.

• The Internet must be allowed to continue to innovate unfettered by appeals to 'think of the kids and their safety' rather than evidence based research

Until Larry Magid's post, the name the Anti-Media Panic faction had ascribed to the other faction, i.e. 'Internet Safety Industrial Complex' was not in the public domain. It is an interesting term that is not explained but from which we might be infer that there is a close symbiotic relationship between certain internet safety advocates and the companies that sell technological internet safety technology solutions.

The Internet Safety Industrial Complex faction's ideology is premised on the following pillars:

• There is ample evidence of the risks to children and young people's personal safety and wellbeing online.

• Internet companies have a duty of care to protect the children and young people who use the services these companies make available online

• Internet safety technologies are an important part of the set of tools, knowledge and skills families need to navigate the internet safely.

• Parents need to be engaged with and informed about their children's online and mobile activities. Internet safety technologies provide parents with the means to educate their children and negotiate what are safe and responsible online activities.

• Internet companies must continue to invest in both education and internet safety technologies to ensure that there are adequate protections in place to enable children and young people will have a safe online experience.

Broadly speaking, in effect, there are two factions that are part funded by two sectors that are in opposition to one another. Internet industry funding assists the Anti-Media Panic faction and Internet safety technology companies part fund internet safety advocates who believe technical solutions can play an important part in protecting children online. To be clear, there will be many people whose views align with one or other faction who will not be in receipt of funding from either sector. Typically, factions such as these are loosely organised and being aligned with one faction does not preclude being hired by the sector that is more closely aligned with a different faction.

Furthermore, the Anti-Media Panic faction adopts a position of relying on statistics, calling for proportionate responses and further evidence-based research. This can lead to the impression that this faction is perhaps the more rational faction.

The Internet Safety Industrial Complex adopts the 'if one child is harmed, that is one child too many', which is more aligned with an emotional response. In its coverage of the risks that children may encounter online, major parts of mass media are regarded as aligning with and feeding the 'Internet Safety Industrial Complex's narratives. From a geographical perspective, the Anti-Media Panic faction is very powerful in the US but less so in the UK. Needless to say, both factions spend a great deal of time lobbying politicians.

When working well, factions can have many positive benefits in terms of enabling a variety of views to be explored and challenged. The outputs of such discussions can provide thought leadership and inform both research and policy agendas. However, dissension within a community can have negative and polarising effects. Perhaps it is time for the power brokers of these factions to take stock and examine what it is they are hoping to achieve, the methods employed to reach those goals and the unintended consequences of dissension. The latter will be explored further in an upcoming post.