On the 24th of November, the INSAFE/INHOPE/BIK network and the European Commission DG CNECT organised in Luxembourg the 2016 edition of the Safer Internet Forum under the theme “Be the change”.
The conference brought together a variety of stakeholders including young people, parent and teacher representatives, industry and government policy makers and civil society organisations to discuss the ongoing challenges of achieving a “Better Internet for Kids”. As one in three Internet users are children, it is essential to come up with sustainable strategies to tackle such issues as harmful content, commercial exploitation and cyberbullying.
The panel session “The commercialization of childhood” brought together academia, civil society and industry representatives to discuss the growing exposure of children to commercial content/commercial solicitations online.
Two researchers from the University of Ghent underlined a number of important research findings, especially the fact that children have a hard time to recognize certain “new” types of online advertising techniques and that “labels” like the “PP” label to notify about product placements are not very effective in signaling to children that certain contents includes advertising.
John Carr from eNACSO stressed that while regulation has cracked down on many immoral advertising practices in the real world, such as paying children to talk to their peers about a product in real life, regulation has lagged behind on online advertising. While the EU Commission has relied on self-regulation, the results and impact of such self-regulation to limit children’s exposure to advertising is less than convincing. Children should have a charter of economic rights and not be tagged simply as “vulnerable consumers”. This could be achieved, potentially, via a revision of the unfair commercial practices of the EU Commission.
Martin Schmalzried, Senior COFACE’s Policy and Advocay officer, shared two recommendations on how to limit children’s exposure to advertising online:
– New “indicators” need to be developed to enable children/parents to choose services which adopt a fair and responsible advertising policy. One such indicator is the ratio between advertising and “native” content. How many posts out of 10 are advertising? What “surface” of the screen/webpage is covered with advertising? Users need to have some indicators to compare how various online services, platforms or content providers fare in displaying advertising.
– Regulators should not exclude the ban of certain advertisement techniques. As John Carr has underlined, regulators have banned certain advertisement techniques in the real world on several accounts on the grounds of unethical/unfair practices. There is no reason why online advertising should be exempt from such regulation.
BIK to the future
The final panel session of the Safer Internet Forum looked to the future and the challenges ahead. Martin Schmalzried presented 7 key areas of focus that will need to be addressed in the future:
Exposure to VR will increase substantially over the next years as the cost of the technology drops. Some of the issues include:
- Harassment/cyberbullying: the first instances of “virtual groping” have surfaced on the Internet in the last few weeks. The negative effects of cyberbullying, harassment and any forms of harmful content/contact will be multiplied in VR settings due to the increased realism and immersiveness of VR. Studies have already shown that VR can be used successfully for curing post traumatic stress disorder and boost empathy. The opposite is therefore very likely true (it can enhance trauma and desensitization).
- Child pornography and child abuse may also move to VR as the combination of VR with connected sex toys and haptic feedback devices will greatly increase “realism”.
- The collection of data in VR will raise new questions about privacy. The data generated by users could be used for advertising in VR, for instance, as advertising has proven to be more effective in VR environments.
- Physical problems related to VR are also likely to emerge such as eye strain, impaired depth of vision (if used by young children), or injury by collision against a “real world” object while immersed in VR.
There are many controversies which have surfaced about algorithms lately, notably the “filter bubble” effect and the viral nature of “fake news”. Algorithms can help in tackling several problems including cyberbullying, hate speech or identifying fake news, but this requires a willingness of companies to work on developing such solutions.
Algorithms will also require increased accountability mechanisms such as independent audits to avoid discrimination or unfair “humanless” decisions to be carried out. Without human judgment and interpretation, algorithms are useless and may create more problems then they solve. An example is the “predictive policing” algorithm. While it may be successful in fighting crime, as in identifying the neighborhoods where a crime is most likely to happen, the “lessons” learned from such an algorithm need a human interpretation. Are all “blacks and latinos” more likely to be criminals or rather, are all humans struck by poverty, discrimination, desperation, and exclusion more likely to commit crime? The implications of such an interpretation are highly important as in the first case, one may decide that the solution is to build more prisons, in the second case, one may decide that the solution is to fight inequalities and discrimination.
Finally, algorithms deserve their own “liberalization”, moving away from the “monopoly” and control of their current owners. The data kept by Facebook and Google is simply a billion row and column database which could be “searched” and “ranked” by any algorithm, not just the “proprietary” algorithm of Facebook and Google. Allowing third parties to propose “custom” algorithms might help solve many of the issues discussed above such as “filter bubbles” and “fake news”.
3-Online business models
The current online business models are also much to blame for the “harmful” content or “fake news” available. Fake news heavily rely on advertising revenue, which often takes up more space than the “content” of the fake news article. Users do not understand “new” business models relying on user data or “in app purchases”/”freemium”. In the past, economies of scale provided that the more users bought a good, the cheaper it was to produce and the cheaper it could be sold, thereby greatly benefiting consumers and society as a whole. Online, this system is broken. Normally, with more and more users subscribing to Facebook, the prevalence of advertising should be dropping since Facebook should be able to “sell” its services for less advertising. But the opposite has happened! Instead, there is more and more advertising on both Facebook, Youtube and many other online platforms. Because users do not understand such business models, these services can get away with sucking more and more money from users’ time (since their revenue is generated by wasting people’s time looking at advertising) instead of lowering their “price” (advertisement prevalence) as would normally happen under a healthy “competitive” environment in the real world.
The same holds true for many other forms of digital services or content. Apps don’t get cheaper with more people buying them, although the cost of developing them is the same!
More and more, we hear about the term “digital citizen” which is a “sexy” way to describe contemporary Internet users. However, the word “citizenship” and “citizen” are ill-chosen. Rather, the term should be “digital subject”. Indeed, citizenship implies that a person has a right to vote or influence the rules and laws by which he/she is governed. On the Internet, most if not all online service providers do not function as democracies but rather like monarchies, with terms of service and community standards written by the owners and with little to no “rights” for their users, only obligations.
Deep learning and machine learning has had many breakthroughs in the last decade and many more are coming. The impact on our societies should not be underestimated. Some are already talking about “labour displacement” or even permanent loss of available jobs. Humans generate more and more data through their everyday mobile phone use, Internet surfing habits and many emerging technologies such as VR and Internet of Things. All this data, if structured properly, can be used to accelerate the development of AI and machine/deep learning, and the implications should not be underestimated. As the saying goes, “children are great imitators, so give them something great to imitate”, this is even truer for AI and machine/deep learning: AI is only as good as the data it works with!
6-Terrorism and radicalization
Terrorism, support of terrorism, radicalization, online recruitment have been high on the agenda for policy makers especially since ISIS/ISIL has emerged and social media have been widely used to propagate their messages and rhetoric. The “easy” response has been to ask for increased filtering, take-down or overall censorship of any content promoting/supporting terrorism in one way or another.
But not only is it difficult to fight such messages since new social media accounts from which such messages are being shared are created every day, but also since terrorists move to communication technologies which are harder to trace/monitor or censor such as the private messaging app telegram.
Unfortunately, focusing on censorship is like sweeping dust under a rug. It might help in the short term, but in the long term, be counter-productive. ISIS/ISIL’s emergence is strongly linked to Europe’s colonial history and recent US imperialism. Their propaganda is successful because it builds on accurate historical facts which have been ignored, minimized or even denied in our societies. Terrorism is also linked to poverty, social exclusion and seeking vengeance for the death of loved ones (as is often the case between Palestine and Israel). The priority should be how to prevent terrorism by addressing inequalities, social exclusion and bringing to justice those who are responsible for the death of innocents, often in the name of human rights/democracy but in reality, serving other interests.
News about yet another data breach and theft of millions of credit card information, user account details and the likes surface more and more often. Cybersecurity, in order to be successful in the future, will have to be considered as a public good. The open source movement is a model in this respect. With a strong community of voluntary and engaged security researchers, open source software such as Linux/GNU stays highly secure. Other proprietary security solutions rely on hiding code and hoping that no one will be able to find a vulnerability or security flaw. Time and again, this has proven to be wildly ineffective. Even “new” technologies as blockchain are based on crowdsourced security as breaking it would require, among other things, to take control of at least half of the computers on which blockchain technology is running.