Pixels shouldn’t be more profitable than child protection
t’s 10 years since the then prime minister, Gordon Brown, commissioned a report, overseen by NSPCC and clinical psychologist, Professor Tanya Byron, into what could be done to ensure children’s safety online. It made 38 urgent recommendations. Just 16 have been implemented, and now the current Government’s Internet Safety Strategy wants to develop a voluntary code of practice for social networks – something Prof Byron’s report suggested, was never done and is now, she says, hopelessly out of date.
If a week is a long time in politics, 10 years is several lifetimes in modern technology. New platforms including Snapchat, Instagram and WhatsApp – where a disproportionate number of the 1,300 cases of children being groomed by adults that have been reported to the police under new legislation that is just six months old – have sprung up, and social media use of all kinds and among all ages has proliferated.
The good news – if you hold your nose and squint really hard for the duration – is that technological weapons with which to protect our children online have also come on apace. As Prof Byron pointed out, the algorithms and bots that now invisibly shape our lives at every turn could be pressed into the service of identifying grooming patterns. Got an adult male who has lots of underage “friends” with no geographical or other link detectable in the massed detail a social network operator has sight of? Got a bloke who is sending out a lot of friend requests to youngsters? And having them refused? Flag them all. Report them all. Ban them all.
We live in an age when discoveries of unchecked paedophilia have become so common that I find myself feeling actual gratitude towards men who have accrued any wealth and status over their lifetimes without parlaying it into access to young bodies to be abused. Actual gratitude. When that’s no longer true, surely we can turn our attention to working out an algorithmic subroutine or sending out a splinter group of bots for the women.
Wouldn’t it be great? Jus Just as I yearn to see a government minister minist represent his electorate electorate, instead of jockey for positio position and scratch the line of o backs he judges most likely like to lead him to persona personal enrichment, so just once I would like to se see the mighty power of the mightiest, most powerful p companies on ear earth – Amazon, Alphabet (which owns Google), M Microsoft, Apple and Fa Facebook – put to good collective use.
But it’s not n happening happening. Instead, we have a w world in which Ama Amazon has managed to t patent a wristband that can
Itrack its workers’ every move, where Facebook has (secretly, until documents were leaked last year) claimed it can identify insecure, anxious and stressed teens from their posts and to be able to manipulate users’ moods via “emotional contagion” by changing information on their home pages, yet still nothing gets done about child endangerment.
Google and Facebook, in particular, are avatars and practitioners of the new “surveillance capitalism”, the system whereby it is not our need for goods and services that creates the greatest corporate wealth, but the data we generate that can then be sold on, a system which can, with sophisticated algorithms, virtually hand tool campaigns to best stimulate the idiosyncratic bundles of needs sitting in front of screens.
Search engines and social media sites are designed for nothing but extracting every last atom of your data trail (70per cent of internet data traffic courses through Google and Facebook’s veins) and packaging it up neatly for their real customers, advertisers, who deposit around two thirds of their massed budgets into those two companies’ coffers every year.
So why can’t they also introduce algorithms that monitor for wrongdoing rather than commercially valuable psychological quirks? And governments that could alter things at a stroke (perhaps by tweaking current legislation so that platform providers are considered publishers rather than simply untouchable hosts of others’ content, or rethink the notion of market dominance and monopolies as only harmful if it leads to raised prices) seem at worst too scared by the behemoths’ power – so wide, so deep – and, at best, too baffled by the strange new world of big tech to challenge it in any real way.
We’ve arrived at a situation where pixels are more profitable than child protection and in which that is all that matters to those functionally – if not legally or democratically accountably – in charge. The only remaining hope lies with us. The users.
Only if we turn away from social media, only if we make efforts to reject the way things are, will Google, Facebook, Amazon et al take notice. There are increasing signs that this could happen. More and more internet conversation – look, it’s a first step – is about how awful the internet is. People are tiring of sites that are little more than springboards for shouty argument, vicious trolling and the serving up of sinisterly apposite ads in between. We all need to step away. We have nothing to lose and everything – including our offsprings’ childhoods – to regain.
In this endlessly revisionist, morally relative, fake-newsinfested age, a story that unites rather than divides us all is to be welcomed. And so to the tale of United Airlines, which last week cried “No more!” and refused to let a woman board with her emotional support peacock. Called Dexter.
– who had been told before arriving at check-in not to bring the bird
– is a Brooklyn photographer and performance artist who originally bought it for an art installation.
I know. I know. It’s perfect. Simple, and perfect. Let both the admiration for the decision and the hatred for its necessity rage freely.
Don’t let the cleansing fire singe your feathers on the way out, Dexter. It’s very much not your fault.
Just once I would like to see the mightiest companies use their power for good
Prof Tanya Byron, right, says the suggestions she made in 2008 are now hopelessly out of date