There’s no app for that

Putting responsibility for our children in the hands of governments and corporations is just wrong

In recent years, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) has been drumming up support for surveillance and censorship. They do it under the guise of creating measures to protect children and stop what they call cyber-crime. But what they advocate is nothing short of a toolkit fit for a police state.

I’d love to be able to say that I’m overstating the case. I’d love to find out that the technologies and legal levers that are being proffered by the ITU and various other agencies were never used for anything other than good. I’d also love a pony.

I’ve written before about the fractious relationship between the ITU and the technical organisations that actually do run the internet. I’ve written about how Pacific island governments and societies can come to terms with surveillance and censorship. I’ve even talked about this push by the ITU, extending across the developing world, to drum up support for its vision of the internet as a fenced and orderly place. More to the point, I’ve already written about where it leads.

But just last week, at a conference discussing the protection of critical IT infrastructure, I watched a presenter describing the creation of a computer incident response team (in ITU jargon, a CIRT) based on a model adopted by some of the least free countries in the world. This was presented without apology or explanation.

Meanwhile, just across the grounds of the hotel where this presentation was taking place, another, much more well-attended workshop was taking place. It purported to address what is commonly called child online protection. The core premise of child online protection is that the internet is a scary place, and because it’s technology (about which most of us parents know very little), we need more technology to stop the scary stuff from ever reaching our children.

I cannot help but feel anger that our children are being used as proxies in this fight.

I don’t want to sound completely dismissive of this premise; the internet does have some vile, repugnant content, and predators do use it to identify and pursue vulnerable children. But I cannot help but distrust the agenda, the tools being proffered and indeed the motivation of the organisations driving it. And I cannot help but feel anger that our children are being used as proxies in this fight.

The tactics used are disingenuous, to say the least. The chimaera of online predators, porn and cyber-crime (whatever that is) is waved in front of people’s eyes, and then a mostly modest selection of options is presented. The more pious, caring members of our society then lead the charge to the most draconian possible response.

One typically outraged commenter from the PNG ICT community stated:

Looking at the bigger picture, why are we so called IT experts not doing our bit at work to filter, block, report porn sites? Why is it that NICTA [PNG’s telecommunications regulator] is not effective regulating ISP services to enforce such things like this? It isn’t hard nor an expensive exercise. Look at the learning levels, attitude of our kids these days! Read about all the sex related offences happening everyday in this country. BLOCK OFF all forms of filth through the internet would be the quickest and effective start.

In other words: This is not about the law; this is about our children. Ignore the conflation of nudity with sex offences.

A lecturer in computer science at the University of the South Pacific went further:

There can be a level of parental control that is used by the government. I hope that people are not so extreme when it comes to the term “Internet freedom” that they can tolerate websites that promote terrorism, give information of developing weapons at home, sells porn that involves children and so on. Any government would agree to ban these type of sites.

So the arc of internet freedom now bends toward extremism. It’s just plain depressing. And that’s before we even contemplate what he meant by ‘parental control used by the government’.

As one of the greatest champions of freedom from another reactionary time once said, ‘The trouble with fighting for human freedom is that one spends most of one’s time defending scoundrels. For it is against scoundrels that oppressive laws are first aimed, and oppression must be stopped at the beginning if it is to be stopped at all.’

To be fair, there are a number of more moderate voices out there, and senior members of some of our institutions understand the danger of making our networks subject to complete and constant surveillance.

But let’s be clear: that’s exactly what we’re discussing here. When we talk about ‘parental control’, we really mean surveillance and censorship. That’s how content filters work: In order to find anything objectionable, we must inspect everything. And by ‘we’, of course, I mean our police, government officials and, equally worrying, our ISPs and telecommunications companies. While I would like to live in a world where all of these players are above reproach, only one of them needs to succumb to temptation in order for this entire proposition to go pear-shaped.

Our instinctual desire to protect our children is being played upon to further global surveillance and censorship.

This may sound alarmist and, yes, extreme. But it is exactly what is being proposed. I challenge anyone to refute the basic premise that the very same tools that allow government officials and others to filter content also allow them to view every byte that crosses those same wires.

The most depressing part is, these organisations are going to win. There’s no fighting a parent’s protectiveness. And it’s next to impossible these days to combat the concerted application of unreasoning resentment and opprobrium against the very principles that only a generation ago were worth fighting and dying for.

Just days ago, we witnessed the progress of truly appalling surveillance legislation through the Australian senate. While Glenn Lazarus stood to say that the internet ‘poses one of the greatest threats to our existence,’ his fellow senators passed a law that has been characterised as containing ‘arguably the most significant restraints on press freedom in this country outside of wartime.’

Defending free expression and association on the internet is increasingly becoming a mug’s game. Those of us who still uphold every individual’s sovereign right to be wrong on the internet are increasingly subject to accusations that we’re aiding and abetting terrorists, paedophiles and, heaven help us, spammers.

But before I’m consigned to the flames of digital perdition, allow me to say:

1)    I have found, after 20+ years of working on the internet, that There’s No App For That: parents are the best parental control. Technical substitutes for parental supervision are poor substitutes. I have yet to see a single technological service or application that even comes close to simply sitting in the same room as your child when they’re online.

2)    I prefer not to let other people’s parents control my children, thank you.

But who am I kidding? If the Snowden revelations weren’t enough to get people off their sofas and into the middle of the information carriageway calling for fundamental changes to the way we run our networks, what hope can one hoary old geek living in this digital backwater possibly have?

Still, every time someone says, ‘think of the children,’ I can’t help but reply, ‘I wish you wouldn’t.’