Who trusts the fox to look after chickens?
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.