Internet Safety Factions: Dissension, Misinformation, Myths and Stereotypes - Is It Time to Take Stock ?

In the late 1990's as the internet truly started to go mainstream, a number of individuals and organisations mobilised to secure funding from governments, the Internet industry and philanthropic organisations to develop programmes of Internet safety education.

Dr Rachel O'Connell

In the beginning..

In the late 1990's as the internet truly started to go mainstream, a number of individuals and organisations mobilised to secure funding from governments, the Internet industry and philanthropic organisations to develop programmes of Internet safety education. In tandem with these initiatives there was a growing recognition that law enforcement agents would need to be trained to deal with cybercrimes. Specialist police units and hotlines were set up, such as the National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) set up the CyberTipline in 1998, to receive reports of suspected child sexual exploitation. Since its inception in 1998 - to June 2013, the CyberTipline has processed over 1.9 million reports concerning crimes against children. These include reports about online enticement for sexual acts, sexual molestation, child pornography and unsolicited obscene material.

In the UK, a similar organisation the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP) was launched in 2006. Since 2000, the European Commission's multi-annual Safer Internet Action Plan has funded Internet safety initiatives throughout Europe. These and a whole host of similar education, awareness raising and law enforcement initiatives around the world aim to address the need to both equip children and those responsible for their care with the tools, knowledge and skills to navigate the Internet safely and to tackle criminal activity online. Today, Internet safety tips are regularly taught to children in schools and schools often invite parents to come to parent's evenings to receive education about keeping their children safe online.The internet safety community continues to work with multiple stakeholders, including the internet industry, to develop and disseminate programmes of education, self regulatory good practice guidelines designed to enhance child safety online, and a range of internet safety technologies have and continue to be developed by companies.

Arguably, the focus of the mass media on internet safety issues has served an important public service by raising awareness of, and fostering discussion between children and those responsible for their care, about the presence of adults with a sexual interest in children, who solicit children and young people both online and offline. The media has also afforded members of the internet safety community opportunities to advise parents about maintaining open lines of communication with their children about their child's online activities, and the available reporting mechanisms.

Measuring the impact of these initiatives...

In terms of measuring the effects of these initiatives, in a recent paper David Finklehor points out that in the US "sex crimes overall, and in particular against children, have dropped dramatically during the same period that Internet use has become part of everyday life. He acknowledged that over the last number of years, media attention on online predators drew needed attention to the issue of child abuse, albeit that it may also have precipitated a degree of media panic. The drop in US sex crime figures may be evidence that the combined efforts of the Internet safety community, law enforcement agencies and the media, in addition to a number of other factors, have contributed to a downward trajectory in the number of reported sex crimes.

Parallels with other public safety and education initiatives

Much like the introduction of a fire prevention service to a town that had previously had a reportedly high incidence of fires, one would expect to see programmes of education being rolled out, and a concerted effort to increase the numbers of buildings with smoke alarms and fire extinguishers that would result in a more informed and protected citizenry, which would precipitate a lowering of instances of fires. Crucially, the downward trajectory of incidences of fires in a town does not preclude the need to continue with, programmes of education and awareness raising, multi-stakeholder dialogue, or the search for innovative and more effective fire prevention methods. Can the same logic can be extended to the downward trajectory of the reported incidences of sex crimes and internet safety initiatives?

Responses of the factions within the internet safety community

You might expect the reported decline in the incidence of reported sex crimes against children would be greeted positively by the Internet safety community that have worked so diligently to create a safer online environment. However, there is dissension within certain factions of the Internet safety community -

Rather than critically evaluate and reflect the statistics with respect to the decline in reported sexual offences in their marketing and communications, the Anti Media Panic faction informs us that the 'Internet Safety Industrial Complex' faction allegedly over-inflate and exaggerates the risks to children's safety in order to secure funding and/or to promote the use of Internet safety technologies and the development of programmes of education.

The Anti-Media Panic faction is so concerned about the impact of the 'exaggerated' claims about the risks young people may encounter online that it urges people to Beware of the Internet Safety Industrial Complex. The Anti-Media Panic faction relies on research findings and commentary to both discredit the 'Internet Safety Industrial Complex' faction and to better serve its own agenda, and herein lies a problem.

For example, in a recent blog post by a proponent of the Anti-Media Panic faction, children were divided into two categories to describe how they handle instances of unwanted sexual solicitation online. It was claimed that the majority of children fall into the first category, i.e. those who 'ignore' online sexual solicitation. The second category is comprised of those few, children and young people, who do become victims of online sexual solicitation. This minority of children were described as fitting the following profile:

1. They go online with the intention of 'looking to hook-up with online strangers ' and subsequently

2. meet the offender "expecting to engage in sexual activity"

3. Those children and young people who are most at risk often engage in risky behaviours and have difficulties in other parts of their lives.

In the UK, both a review of past child sexual abuse cases and a public consultation process that ran between 11 June and 3 September 2013, were conducted by the National Policing Lead for Violence and Public Protection, in partnership with the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS).

The purpose of the review was to identify lessons learnt from child abuse cases and to develop a new set of good practice guidelines. The new guidance entitled Guidelines on Prosecuting Cases of Child Sexual Abuse warns police and prosecutors not to fall into the trap of believing myths and stereotypes about child victims of sex crimes. The Guidance states that it is very important that prosecutors use their best endeavours to ensure that 'myths and stereotypes' about child sexual abuse are challenged in court. If they are left unchallenged, it may lead to members of the jury approaching the victim's evidence with unwarranted scepticism. It urges both police officers and prosecutors not to dismiss a complaint just because a victim has a troubled background. In Annex C of the Guidance a list of common 'myths and stereotypes' about victims of sex crimes held by members of the police and the crown prosecution service. I have highlighted in bold the myths and stereotypes that are common to the 'research findings' described by the Anti-Media Panic faction and those highlighted in the Guidance. These include:

The victim invited sex by the way they dressed or acted

A victim in a relationship with the alleged offender is a willing sexual partner

Children can consent to their own sexual exploitation

•The victim didn't scream, fight or protest and so it can't be sexual assault

To be clear, the Anti-Media Panic faction uses research findings to serve its particular nuanced agenda, i.e. to make the point that a minority of children are at risk, both offline and online, and therefore any technology based measures, that either the internet industry or parents might be pressed to implement, to mitigate the risks to these children's well-being would not necessarily be effective for this particular group of young people.

However, the juxtaposition of the language used by the Anti-Media Panic faction to make this point with the list of 'common myths and stereotypes' associated with sex crimes against children referred to in the UK Guidance for the Crown Prosecution serves to highlight the potential unintended consequences of pursuing the Anti-Media Panic faction agenda in this manner i.e. the promotion of myths and stereotypes about victims.

Furthermore, the claim that the Internet Safety Industrial Complex faction is spreading misinformation is a significant indictment. It begs the question of whether or not regulations intended to address false advertising and marketing might not be a better avenue through which the Internet safety community could address this issue. Internet safety technology companies ought to be held accountable to the same standards as any other company selling a product.

Both the tactics and language employed by the various dissenting factions within the internet safety community, to advance their specific agendas, can have unintended consequences. Perhaps, it is time for the power brokers of these factions, their supporters, and the wider internet safety community to take stock, recognise what progress has been made to date and consider how that should inform future initiatives, reflect on the dissension and its effects and explore ways to work together constructively.

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