Who trusts the fox to look af­ter chick­ens?

Irish Daily Mail - - News -

SO NOW, at least, we know the score. Now we know who it is we must rely upon to keep our chil­dren safe on­line. It’s not our new Dig­i­tal Safety Com­mis­sioner, since no such per­son ex­ists just yet. It’s not the chil­dren’s ad­vo­cates and cham­pi­ons, in­clud­ing the ISPCA, who are dis­mayed by the fail­ings in the Gov­ern­ment’s Ac­tion Plan for On­line Safety.

It’s not the ex­perts like Dr Mary Aiken or Pro­fes­sor Barry O’Sul­li­van who, de­spite be­ing in­ter­na­tion­ally recog­nised for their bat­tles for cy­ber­safety, weren’t even con­sulted on this plan. And cer­tainly not those teach­ers, like Terry O’Sul­li­van in Kerry, who have seen the ben­e­fits of ban­ning smart­phone own­er­ship among their young pupils – he wasn’t asked for his in­put, ei­ther.

No, it turns out that the peo­ple we’ll be trust­ing to keep our chil­dren safe from on­line preda­tors, groomers, gam­ing ad­dic­tions, bul­lies, ex­treme pornog­ra­phy and graphic vi­o­lence are... the share­hold­ers in the tech­nol­ogy com­pa­nies.

That’s right, the same share­hold­ers whose div­i­dends de­pend on the tech com­pa­nies’ prof­its. The same tech com­pa­nies whose eye-wa­ter­ing rev­enues de­pend on their abil­ity to keep on re­cruit­ing new cus­tomers. The same new cus­tomers who come, of ne­ces­sity, from that teenage co­hort whose mo­bile phone own­er­ship, in this coun­try, is as high as 100%.

No other age group, ac­cord­ing to the Gov­ern­ment’s own fig­ures, spend as much time on­line, nor have such a high per­cent­age of mo­bile phone own­er­ship. Any tech com­pany that isn’t tar­get­ing them, ac­tively and ag­gres­sively, isn’t go­ing to sur­vive very long.

Any tech com­pany that isn’t fo­cused on re­cruit­ing more teenager smart­phone users isn’t go­ing to be is­su­ing any fat div­i­dends. And any tech com­pany that isn’t is­su­ing fat div­i­dends will not have happy share­hold­ers.

And yet, Taoiseach Leo Varad­kar said this week he’s re­ly­ing on the share­hold­ers to keep the tech com­pa­nies in line. That’s why he didn’t threaten on­line ser­vice providers with le­gal con­se­quences if they fail to take all nec­es­sary mea­sures to keep chil­dren safe. It’s not be­cause this coun­try is in the pocket of the big tech com­pa­nies, per­ish the thought.

It’s be­cause, as he put it, ‘they know that fail­ing to act when it comes to on­line safety is dam­ag­ing their rep­u­ta­tion and po­ten­tially dam­ag­ing their share­holder value in the longer term’.

Re­ly­ing on the share­hold­ers to mon­i­tor the tech com­pa­nies is a bit like trust­ing the fox to guard the fowl house be­cause, if he eats all the hens, he’ll go hun­gry ‘in the longer term’.

Like the fox, the share­hold­ers will take what they can get, and then move on to fresh pick­ings. They will keep in­vest­ing so long as the tech com­pa­nies keep mak­ing money. And the tech com­pa­nies will keep mak­ing money so long as they keep re­cruit­ing young cus­tomers.

And the tech com­pa­nies will keep on re­cruit­ing younger and younger cus­tomers un­til our Gov­ern­ment grows the co­jones to pun­ish them, with fines and sanc­tions, for fail­ing to pro­tect vul­ner­a­ble young minds from the ex­cesses of the net.

The Taoiseach’s ap­proach, ef­fec­tively, is to wait un­til suf­fi­cient harm is done to shame the tech com­pa­nies into reg­u­lat­ing them­selves. Imag­ine if he sug­gested lift­ing re­stric­tions on the sale of cig­a­rettes to un­der 18s on the same ra­tio­nale?

Imag­ine he reck­oned that the tobacco com­pa­nies would even­tu­ally re­move the car­cino­gens and the ad­dic­tive chem­i­cals from their prod­ucts, once peo­ple started dy­ing of lung can­cer, be­cause of the rep­u­ta­tional hit to their share prices?

IMAG­INE ex­pect­ing the tobacco com­pa­nies’ share­hold­ers, rolling in fat div­i­dends from a whole new mar­ket of teenage smok­ers, to be the ones to act where gov­ern­ments did not?

There was a time when cig­a­rettes were mar­keted for their health ben­e­fits – they were be­lieved to clear the lungs and re­duce stress. In this in­stance, though, we can’t even claim ig­no­rance like the tobacco com­pa­nies tried to back then: we all know how dam­ag­ing smart­phones are to chil­dren (though it will be years be­fore the full scale of the con­se­quences ac­tu­ally hits home).

The WHO has just for­mally clas­si­fied on­line gam­ing as an ad­dic­tion, and the ev­i­dence of the harm­ful im­pacts of early ex­po­sure to hard­core porn is im­pos­si­ble to dis­pute. Add in the risk from on­line preda­tors and bul­lies, the sex­ting, the black­mail­ing, the de­cline in real-life friend­ships and ac­tiv­i­ties, and the end­lessly in­ge­nious meth­ods be­ing de­vised, as we speak, by tech com­pa­nies to in­crease and mul­ti­ply on­line ac­tiv­ity in ever-younger cus­tomers.

And we’re re­duced to re­ly­ing on their share­hold­ers, the driv­ers of this fren­zied pur­suit of ever-greater prof­its, to pro­tect our chil­dren from their own en­deav­ours.

Share­hold­ers won’t pro­tect our chil­dren, Taoiseach, any more than tobacco com­pa­nies pro­tect smok­ers. That’s not their job: but they’ll doubt­less be rais­ing a glass to the fact that, when it comes to pro­tect­ing chil­dren, you’re not pre­pared to do yours.

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