“Companies Must Make the Internet Safer”

Questions to John Carr, a leading authority on children’s use of the internet and advisor to the United Nations’ International Telecommunications Union

On average, children in Europe start using the internet when they are seven years old. Many children even younger than that are regularly going online. While offering them an exciting world of new experiences and benefitting their personal development, some of the content and communities on the internet can expose minors to dangers and risks such as cyber bullying, privacy breaches and illegal content.

This raises questions about how to protect minors online. Excluding them from the internet due to these threats would be to deprive children of an extraordinary source of information and self-improvement. Instead, John Carr, a leading authority on children’s use of the internet and advisor to the United Nations’ International Telecommunications Union, argues that online companies should take more responsibility in protecting children. Carr gave Netopia an interview on the topic.

Per Strömbäck: What is online protection of minors?

John Carr: There are two bits to online protection of minors. The best defence for every child in every part of life, not just internet, is their own knowledge, awareness and resilience. But the internet is a supremely technological space, so internet businesses have a major responsibility to do whatever they can at a technical level to help with the safety challenge.

PS: Should the internet be centrally regulated to protect children?

JC: I would much rather the industry sorted all of these things out themselves. Typically, regulation takes longer and ends up more complicated and more expensive for everybody than it needs to be. Soft regulation is always preferable to government intervention.

PS: Who is “the industry” in this case?

JC: The internet industry not a single unified cohort anymore. Today, it’s practically everybody. ISPs, search engines and social networking sites are probably at the core of my work on child safety but all the big online businesses, such as Amazon, EBay, PayPal, and the big retailers are in there too. All of these have a stake in the internet, so they also have a responsibility for it.

PS: All of these are big companies, is it fair to give similar responsibility to smaller businesses?

JC: The internet is dominated by a small number of giants, so we obviously look to them for leadership. But every company should be getting it right. I don’t accept the view that just because a company is small it has a license to ignore rules just so it can grow or become bigger.

As a good example of self-regulation by the industry Carr cites the Pan-European Game Information (PEGI) age rating system. According to Carr, this system is flexible enough to take into account cultural differences which otherwise, in his opinion, make addressing the problem on a global scale difficult.

PS: But there are many different and competing age rating systems. Do you see this as a problem?

JC: I would prefer greater harmonisation and interoperability of in terms of the language, symbols and systems used by companies. And wherever possible things should be done by default over the network. Take porn as an example. For example while we have never said that there should be no porn on the internet, we don’t think it should be so easy for kids to be able to access to it. Network controls turned on by default to restrict access to porn would therefore be a great child protection measure.

PS: What about self-publishing?

JC: I know a lot of people are talking about trying to classify user-generated content. I’m very sceptical about how well self-classification will work. Instead I think the companies owning digital publishing platforms have a responsibility to start policing their sites more closely. If there’s something bad happening on Google’s or Apple’s services, typically these companies will only act if someone reports it to them. But that’s the last thing you will do if you’re interested in that sort of content. I’m really only asking internet companies to find ways of make sure their own terms and conditions are better observed by their users.

PS: Isn’t there a risk private companies take over responsibilities’ of the police?

JC: Private companies are going to have take on a greater role in policing the internet. It’s inevitable. The state simply cannot cope with the volumes of certain types of offending activity. It’s either that or we accept higher levels of illegal behaviour online.  I for one am not ready to do that.

Per Strömbäck
Editor Netopia