Protecting our Children

[This week’s Communications column for the Vanuatu Independent.]

Note: Because of public demand for a printable version of this column, here’s a PDF version of this week’s column.

This week, I’m going to give over much of my column space so that other voices can be heard.

Over the last two weeks or so, there’s been an animated and quite fascinating discussion on the VIGNET technical mailing list. VIGNET is a mailing list service provided by the Vanuatu IT Users Society (VITUS) in order to contribute to a public dialogue about all things to do with technology. With over 220 subscribers, it represents a significant number of people working in IT in Vanuatu.

Following the roll-out of Digicel’s GPRS mobile Internet service, concerns have been raised about children and youth in Vanuatu having access to unsuitable content, especially pornography, through their mobile phones.

With nearly 100 messages from dozens of different contributors, the discussion was illuminating, intelligent and remarkably respectful, especially given the delicacy of the topic. What follows is a small but representative sampling….

Some of the commentators suggested that responsibility for what our children are getting from the Internet begins at home. Russell Mujee wrote:

“If a parent is aware of the bad contents their Kids are accessing then they should call customer service to disable their Kids GPRS – And only to allow access later under their Authorization.

“The other option is to buy mobile phone(s) WITHOUT GPRS for their Kid(s).”

Jane Kanas replied to support the idea that, while we can never entirely block undesirable content, we should do everything we can to arm those in our care with the moral and ethical sense to cope with its unwelcome influence. She ended with a pithy and simple sentiment:

“Shape the mind to shape the action.”

Nambo Moses echoed this sentiment:

“The instructions we obey today… the future we create.”

Edward Williams added his voice, and warned against externalising the blame for this content:

“[Y]umi no save ronwe, ko isolatem yumi wetem ol pikinini afta traem blong saed long technology.

“Yumi stap lukluk iko longwe tumas, blame Digicel, olgeta we oli providem internet long fones. Responsibility istat long house fastaem. I gud ia Digicel i allowem blong kat GPRS long ol fones.

“Sam papa mo mama naoia i mas stap long house mo toktok plante wetem pikinini. Irresponsible parents [i letem] pikinini mekem rabis fasen.

“…[T]eachim gud pikinini blong yu…yumitu no save ronwe ia….Fulap istap kam iet.”

Writing from California, one interested observer suggested that we pay close attention to how other countries are dealing with the very same issue:

“Vanuatu is in a unique position as they can learn from other country’s mistakes, observe some of the issues that technology brings, and use knowledge gained as a basis for forming policies, or at the very least be aware of the risks that come with advancements in technology.”

Some people suggested that it’s all well and good to say responsibility begins at home, but that the majority of adults in Vanuatu are largely uninformed on the issue. Replying to Williams, Sum Abiut wrote:

“I don’t think parenting alone can put an end to this thread. Do parents really know who their son/daughters class mates or friends are? I don’t think so, they might be hanging out with some bunch of teens who took advantage of this service to influences other teens to watch porn. No one is blaming Digicel or [any] ISP here. It needs team work to deal with this threat.”

To which Williams replied:

“[T]eam work won’t be very effective if some bunch of lazy people are depending on yumitu mo other people sweating themselves out trying to put some rules in place preventing all these happening, and they don’t take the time to teach their kids.”

Joseph Toara raised the issue of law enforcement. Stating that Vanuatu already has laws prohibiting indecent material, he asks why aren’t they being enforced on the Internet?

“Long internet every thing is there, unless i kat filter. Hemi no mekem sense blong kat wan law we i blockem people blong karem [porn] magasine i kam long country while yu letem internet open nomo olsem.”

Numerous people offered their support for this proposition.

Makatere replied with “two cents worth”:

“Whereas monitoring all traffic at the gateway? Thats a small step towards becoming a Police state. Big Brother anyone?”

The debate swayed back and forth around the issue. One contributor, signing on with the name Big Aussie, reminded us that this problem is a little like trying to squeeze the air out of a balloon:

“Trying to hide or block these things only makes them hide, making it even harder to control access to them.”

I offered a few thoughts of my own. At the core of the issue of enforcement is the legality of the measures taken to protect people from these influences. I worried about constitutional issues, including the rights to freedom of conscience and speech, and the constitutional prohibition against unreasonable search and seizure.

Furthermore, the license agreements currently in place for our ISPs have no requirement to filter content for any reason. Imposing further conditions on them might create a great deal of concern for their lawyers, especially because of the implications raised about legal liability for the actions of their customers.

Ironically, it would be easier to for them to provide such services voluntarily to those people who wanted to subscribe to them.

More than anything else, though, I worry about the potential for abuse. The problem with installing a filtering system on our core networks is that everything we say and do on the Internet would become visible, and I fear that the temptation to look for material other than pornography might become overwhelming. If experience elsewhere is any guide, it’s not at all unreasonable to fear that political rivals, jealous lovers and people indulging in petty vindictiveness might use these tools to abuse someone’s privacy.

I’m a strong supporter of content filtering in schools, businesses and those private residences that want it. But history teaches us that when such overwhelming surveillance power is given to the state, the worst outcome is the most common.

Kenneth Fakamuria countered with an excellently reasoned response:

“The bottom line is that it is illegal to be bring pornographic material to Vanuatu. In the pre Internet era this law was enforced through customs and immigration. Now of course thanks to internet technologies, pornography is easily accessible in many major centres in Vanuatu. Does this make pornographic access any less legal? No, but it has made the law much more difficult to police.

“It was for this reason that I suggested that further action should come from government – to further enforce this law. And one suggestion was to filter pornographic material from the source. It is much easier to filter from one source than to let it pass 20,000 lines which will require 20,000 filtering actions from the many islands in the country where internet is accessible.”

Joseph Toara offered the following conclusion:

“[L]ong end blong day, yumi man Vanuatu yet bae i dicidem wanem we hemi good blong yumi.”

There is a great deal yet to be said on this topic. VITUS considers it critically important that the people of Vanuatu educate and inform themselves about the new influences – both good and bad – that our newfound levels of access to the Internet introduce to us.