FERGUS FINLAY: Our children are in peril on the internet and nobody’s policing it

Parents are to blame. Children are to blame. Government, as usual, is to blame. The perpetrators, of course, are to blame, writes Fergus Finlay. 

Last week, a man called Matthew Horan was convicted of a variety of sex crimes, involving the use of technology, to prey on children. I’m not going to go into the stomach-turning details of what he did, but he destroyed lives.

The case has provoked uproar, and endless debates on radio, television, and elsewhere, about how can we keep our children safe. The most popular answers appear to be that it’s down to parents and to children.

Parents should be better educated about the dangers of the internet, it seems.

No responsible parent should allow their child to have a smartphone before the age of 14, or 16, or whatever you think best yourself. Every child must be taught that these things are dangerous, and that they have to be proactive in protecting themselves from harm. (I actually heard an expert urging children to be pro-active.) There’s legitimacy in all of this; of course, there is. The internet is a wonderful place and a dangerous place. Social media is liberating and isolating. I don’t know the right age to give a young person a smart phone, or access to the internet on a computer at home. But a piece of kit like a smartphone has to be accompanied by an agreement between a child and his or her parent that both (parent and child) can have equal access to the phone.

And I know, from experience, that parents take this seriously. One of the most in-demand things we do in Barnardos is a series of workshops around the country on internet safety and cyberbullying. The workshops are tailored to the needs of primary and secondary school students, parents, and teachers, and they’re always fully attended.

Our children are in peril on the internet and nobody’s policing it

So when I hear all this blaming of parents and young people, I wonder. Of course, we all have to be more careful. But there was one missing ingredient from the blame debate of the last week or so. Nobody got around to mentioning the multibillion-euro industry behind all this, and whether they have any responsibility.

The minister responsible for the industry, Denis Naughten, is considering the introduction of a digital safety commissioner. He is discussing, with his colleagues, what powers and resources it should have. That’s a couple of years after the Law Reform Commission called for the creation of such an office, and even published a draft bill showing how it could be done.

But it’s also a few weeks after his boss, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, said publicly that he’s worried about the impact such a move might have on freedom of speech. Just before Christmas, he told a national newspaper: “I definitely do think the tech companies could do more in this space. What we are asking for is for tech companies to step up to the plate and to do a bit more to protect people.”

But he added that he is nervous “of anything that involves restrictions on freedom of speech or the Government trying to regulate the internet”.

The industry must have been chortling.

For years, they have been hiding behind a charade of self-regulation that they don’t even take seriously themselves.

I’ve written about this before. The “self-regulation” of the internet is a joke. The voice of the industry is a body called the Irish Internet Service Providers’ Association (ISPAI for short). Their most recent views on such topics as the blocking of dangerous content, for instance, can be found in a press release they issued in 2013, when they said: “As commercial companies, it is not appropriate that ISPs should decide what content the citizens of Ireland should, or should not, be able to find on the internet. Websites operated by the adult pornography industry, which overwhelmingly are located in other countries, may be accessed by people choosing to do so in Ireland.”

But, alongside that, they operate a so-called code of practice and ethics for their members. It was published in 2002, and they’ve never seen fit to update it. Social media didn’t exist in 2002 — indeed, the internet was still in its infancy, in terms of global reach. The first iPhone, for instance, wasn’t introduced until 2007.

Our children are in peril on the internet and nobody’s policing it

But if they haven’t bothered to update it, the members of the ISPAI don’t even bother to
observe it. One of the conditions of membership of the ISPAI is adherence to the code, and one of the conditions of the code is that members must follow certain “minimum practices”.

One of these is that all members of the ISPAI must include, on their own websites, a link to Hotline.ie — that’s the website where you can report dangerous content. I check, occasionally, to find out how many members honour this tiny commitment. The first time I did it, and wrote about it, only one of their members had.

I checked again last night. The ISPAI website records 50 active members of the Association. 21 of them — about 40% — carry the hotline link on their home pages. A few have the link buried elsewhere, but a majority — including most of the household names — don’t even bother. And not a single one of them provides any context or advice, on their home pages, for parents who might be trying to buy something safe, or make something safe that’s already installed.

And as for Hotline itself, as its own annual reports demonstrate, any success in having illegal content removed depends on the person reporting the content (let’s say, a frightened parent) being able to supply — from the start — a detailed description of the material and the address at which it is to be found. Hotline has no investigative capacity of its own, and that partly helps to explain why, of the more than 7,000 reports they got in 2016, less than 400 were found to be about illegal content.

There’s a simple lesson here. If you’re relying on the industry that provides the platform for all this damage to protect us — or to guide us, or to help educate us, or to lead the way in ensuring that panic buttons become a feature of potentially dangerous places — then forget it. The ISPAI is a collection of commercial entities, with commercial imperatives. Anything that gets in the way of those commercial imperatives will be paid lip service to, and then ignored.

We regulate all sort of things in Ireland, to ensure public safety and to mandate minimum standards and good practice.

This is an area that is regulated exactly as the wild west used to be regulated. And, because of that, it’s just as unsafe. If, as a society, we want people to believe that we take the safety of children seriously, this dangerous nonsense has to end.

For years, internet providers have been hiding behind a charade of self-regulation


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