Heading to Oxford Univ. for Forum on “Child Protection, Free Speech and the Internet”

by on September 29, 2009 · 24 comments

Oxford UniversityI’ll be heading to Oxford University this week to participate in an Oxford Internet Institute (OII) forum on the subject of “Child Protection, Free Speech and the Internet: Mapping the Territory and Limitations of Common Ground.”  It’s being led by several experts from the OII as well as my good friends John Morris and Leslie Harris of the Center for Democracy & Technology (CDT).  The aims of this forum are:

  • To facilitate a dialogue between NGOs campaigning to protect respectively, child protection and children’s rights online, and freedom of speech and other civil liberties online.
  • To promote a better understanding of each others’ positions, to share perspectives and information with a view to identifying areas of common ground and areas of disagreement.
  • To identify any shared policy goals, and possible tools to support the achievement of those goals.
  • To publicize the findings of the forum in international policy debates about Internet governance and regulation.

Conference participants were asked to submit a 2-3 pg summary of their views on a couple of questions that will be discussed at this event.  I have listed those questions, and my answers, down below the fold.  It’s my best attempt to date to succinctly outline my views about how to balance content concerns and free speech issues going forward. 

What is the nature of your interest or experience in this field?

I have spent the last 18 years covering the intersection of child safety concerns and free speech issues at four different think tanks.  In recent years, I have tied together all my research in a constantly updated Progress & Freedom Foundation special report entitled, “Parental Controls & Online Child Protection: A Survey of Tools & Methods.” The 4th edition of this 250-page report was released in August.

Are there particular values or principles which underlie your work?

The goal of my research has been to explore the tension between free speech and child protection and to identify methods of striking a sensible balance between these two important values.   It is my hope and belief that we are now in a position to more fully empower parents such that government regulation of content and communications will be increasingly unnecessary.

In the past, it was thought to be too difficult for families to enforce their own “household standard” for acceptable content. Thus, many believed government needed to step in and create a baseline “community standard” for the entire citizenry.  Unfortunately, those “community standards” were quite amorphous and sometimes completely arbitrary when enforced through regulatory edicts.  Worse yet, those regulatory standards treated all households as if they had the same tastes or values—which is clearly not the case in most pluralistic societies.

If it is the case that families now have the ability to effectively tailor media consumption and communications choices to their own preferences—that is, to craft their own “household standard”—then the regulatory equation can and should change.  Regulation can no longer be premised on the supposed helplessness of households to deal with content flows if families have been empowered and educated to make content determinations for themselves.  Luckily, that is the world we increasingly live in today. Parents have more tools and methods at their disposal to help them decide what constitutes acceptable media content in their homes and in the lives of their children.

Going forward, our goal should be to ensure that parents or guardians have (1) the information necessary to make informed decisions and (2) the tools and methods necessary to act upon that information.  Optimally, those tools and methods would give them the ability to not only block objectionable materials, but also to more easily find content they feel is appropriate for their families. In my work, I refer to this as the “household empowerment vision.”

Will we ever be able to achieve a world of perfect parental control over all online content and communications?  That is unlikely since both content and technology will continuously evolve and make that goal elusive. But government regulation of speech should yield where less restrictive alternatives such as household-based controls and strategies exist.  Given the value associated with free speech and the danger of government censorship, these alternatives need not be perfect to be preferable to government regulation.

What are the issues/policies or laws which you see as most problematic in terms of creating or illustrating a conflict between online child protection and free speech?

It is essential that policymakers resist the temptation to extend traditional broadcast industry regulatory statutes and standards to new media outlets and digital technologies.  In a world of media convergence and increasing user empowerment, traditional regulatory rationales make increasingly less sense.  Nonetheless, many ongoing social problems and challenges remain to achieving the “household empowerment vision” I outlined above, including:

  • The “lack of awareness” problem: Some parents remain unaware of empowerment tools.
  • The “bad parent” problem: Some parents don’t use tools even when aware of them.
  • The “bad neighbor” problem: “Good” parents fear what happens when their kids visit other kids with more permissive parents.
  • The “generation gap” problem: Kids sometimes know more about new digital technologies than their parents.
  • The “technological surprise” problem: Rapid emergence and diffusion of new digital technologies can catch some parents by surprise.
  • The “bad corporate actor” problem: Most companies self-regulate, but a handful push the boundaries of good taste in ways that create social concerns that reflect on industry generally.
  • The “user-generated content” problem: Even when “professional” content can be managed, it is difficult to control “amateur” expression and creations.
  • The “peer-on-peer bullying” problem: While many are concerned about predators, the real online safety problem turns out to be cyber-bullying among peers.

Because of these ongoing social challenges or concerns, legal and regulatory proposals will continue to be put forward. But each has serious downsides:

  • Future of filtering: Centralized, network-based or decentralized, user-based?  The former creates serious censorship threats, as we see in China and other repressive states. The latter is more consistent with the household empowerment vision.
  • Middleman deputization: Should online intermediaries be required to police the Net for various social ills?  If so, as hand-maidens of the state, they could become over-zealous speech regulators.
  • Universal content ratings: Can policymakers mandate unified (or “scientific”) content media ratings?  Doing so puts regulators in a position to dictate content standards—for better or worse.  Moreover, this does nothing to address user-generated “amateur” content.
  • Mandatory online age / identity verification: Potentially threatens anonymity, privacy, and free speech rights.  Moreover, to the extent “bad guys” continue to get into “secured” environments it creates a false sense of security for parents and kids.
  • Expanded data retention: Although it would help facilitate some law enforcement goals, it also gives rise to new privacy and data breach risks.

Might any of these conflicts be avoidable, e.g. through the use of improved legislative instruments or greater clarity and accountability in processes of self-regulation?

For the above reasons, it makes more sense to put our energies into finding new self-regulatory mechanisms, social norms, and user empowerment strategies to solve ongoing social problems instead of focusing on regulatory solutions or mandates.  Instead of providing greater clarity, legislative instruments are more likely to instead create greater ambiguity, or at least uncertainty, for content creators and consumers alike. This is because, as was noted above, “community standards” are notoriously subjective; they are ham-handed attempts to gloss over the diverse needs and values of a diverse citizenry. By contrast, self-regulation, social norms, and empowerment strategies are evolutionary in character and more responsive to differences among cultures and households.

What are the issues where you think there might be most scope for finding some common ground?

In two words: empowerment and education. Because reliance on legislation is perilously difficult and enforcement of regulatory mandates is complicated (and sometimes impossible in an increasingly borderless world), efforts to better empower families and educate both kids and parents offer the most sensible path forward.  All stakeholders involved in child safety and free speech debates can generally agree that empowerment efforts, media literacy programs, awareness-building programs, and so on, are both effective and unobjectionable.

At the international level, are there certain key principles which we ought to be defending above all others?

Because of the “values clash” at the international level, it’s hard to imagine we’ll ever achieve consensus on some of these issues.  Countries vary widely in their sensitivities about speech, making any attempt to devise “universal principles” complicated.  For example, Europeans generally deride America’s prudish ways when it comes to matters of sexuality or “indecency.”  By contrast, most Americans cannot understand European concerns about “hate speech” or violently-themed media.  Meanwhile, governments in many other parts of the world are still busy trying to quell political or religious dissent.  “Harmonization” among those competing cultural norms remains complicated, therefore, and it would be a mistake if international harmonization was accomplished by sacrificing free speech rights for countries and cultures who cherish them.

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