Pix­els shouldn’t be more prof­itable than child pro­tec­tion

The Sunday Telegraph - - Features -

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for so­cial net­works – some­thing Prof By­ron’s re­port sug­gested, was never done and is now, she says, hope­lessly out of date.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.

Its owner

– 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

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