A (very) brief history of US Internet safety


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A short presentation given at a Safer Internet Day presentation in Moscow, February 2012

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  • [A presentation I gave at a Safer Internet Day conference in Moscow February 2012.]
  • SO more than 15 years of Internet-safety law in one slide! But it’s quite a story … about the unprecedented clash between child protection and freedom of speech in our country. Communications Decency Act (see slide) – definition of indecency was vague; law threatened the First Amendment. [One of the legislative aides who helped write the law told me in the late ‘90s that, with this law, Congress was testing the Supreme Court – seeking definition and the court’s views on content in a new media environment.] Child Online Protection Act (In reaction to Supreme Court decision, Congress passed COPA). It went back and forth between the U.S. Supreme Court and the federal court of appeals in Philadelphia several times (the Supreme Court sent it back twice). The second time the Supreme Court sent it back to the Phil. Court for more work, in a 5-4 decision, it asked the lower court to see if technology (such as filtering) hadn't improved enough since the law was first passed in 1998 to take care of the child-protection problem without a law having to intervene (this will be the third time the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals has considered COPA). Federal court issued a permanent injunction against the law in 2007, deciding basically that multiple filtering products and services available to American families made any such law unnecessary and unconstitutional. The court said filters had become easy to use, were easy to obtain, and the technology had improved a lot since '98, when the law was passed. Children’s Internet Protection Act – Introduced in Congress in 1999 and signed into law by President Clinton in 2000. Challenged by the American Civil Liberties Union, which argued that CIPA violated the Constitution by requiring public libraries to use filters on public computers. The Supreme Court upheld the law in 2004 but modified it so that if a patron asks, the library must remove the filter. 
  • As our laws and courts have shown, while the Internet makes communication, research, and access infinitely more convenient, it of course complicates things, one of them being a historically unprecedented clash between child protection and freedom of speech. And both are As for online-safety education…. The first youth online risk research was published in 2000. So for the first five years, US safety education and messaging were based on a lot of speculation and some common sense . The most common form of education was “Internet safety nights” in schools, usually featuring a law enforcement officer. This was unfortunate, because – though these police officers had the best of intentions – they were presenting to parents very scary information based on the worst criminal cases and behavior. The problem with this was that the information did not reflect most young people’s experiences online. Research began emerging in 2000 , but – because the education up to that point was so negative – based on worst-case scenarios with no data to back them up – the research was widely misrepresented by the news media and misunderstood by the public. For example, the “1 in every 5 children” figure became very famous. It suggested that 20% of US children received unwanted sexual solicitations from online predators, when in fact the research – by the CCRC – had found that only 1% of youth had received an aggressive solicitation from an adult online, and none of the solicitations had led to any harm or even contact in “real life.” In 2002, the first national Internet-safety task force (led by former US A.G. Richard Thornburgh) released its report, “Youth, Pornography & the Internet,” recommending that education, not filtering be the first priority. It used the swimming-pool metaphor. The report said that it’s much more important and protective to teach children how to swim and when to avoid pools than to rely heavily on fences around pools – because a child who knows how to swim is much less likely to be harmed than a child who doesn’t. http://www.netfamilynews.org/nl030905.html ). The British ed agency Ofsted made the same finding in 2010 report on filtering in UK schools (http://www.netfamilynews.org/?p=28736).
  • When in fact , we now know from research that – since the beginning of the World Wide Web – the US has seen declines in almost all the offline social problem indicators for youth, according to the director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the U. of N.H.…. Just released late last year: 12-to-17-year-olds’ unwanted exposure to pornography down from 34% in 2000 to 23% in 2010 – CCRC (http://www.netfamilynews.org/?p=31073) According to the lead author of the first national youth-online-risk study in 2000, David Finkelhor, we’ve seen declines in almost all the youth social-problem indicators since the arrival of the World Wide Web (http://www.netfamilynews.org/?p=30220): Sexual abuse of minors is down ( 58% from 1992 to 2008) Teen sexual intercourse and pregnancy are down. The teen suicide rate “has dropped dramatically.” The number of crimes committed by young people has “gone down dramatically in the United States.” The only two areas where the US has seen increases: obesity and children living in poverty. Certainly he’s not saying the Internet is the CAUSE of these improvements, but equally certainly it’s also not the cause of more harm, which is the way the Internet has been portrayed for 15 years.
  • The EU Kids Online researchers make an important distinction between risk and harm. They wrote, “ As with riding a bike or crossing the road, everyday activities online carry a risk of harm, but this harm is far from inevitable – indeed, it is fairly rare. ” Certainly there are risks online, just as there are offline. We ’ re aware of the risks, but we have a sense of proportion. We know the risk is there but it doesn ’ t paralyze us. We don ’ t stop crossing streets, cooking, or driving cars. We also know from child-development experts that risk assessment is part of growing up – part of brain development. If we really tried to remove all risk from young people’s lives, online or offline, we would actually be stunting their development. Instead, we need to be there for them, help them avoid taking extraordinary risks or making really stupid mistakes but also let them sort some things out on their own and Note that 5% felt “very upset” from being exposed to sexual images – this might be seen as equivalent to unhealthy exposure. Risk assessment is part of child and adolescent development. August 2011: EU Kids Online’s “Patterns of Risk & Safety Online” – 9-to-16-year-olds in 25 European countries (a sample of 25,000 young people) <http://www.netfamilynews.org/?p=30829>
  • But back to 2005, when MySpace began to grow very fast. So did a lot of fear concerning online social networking…. 2006 Perfect storm of parental fear dev’t – – MySpace coming out of nowhere where adults were concerned ; MySpace ’s exponential growth ; media hype based on media ignorance about social media; nat ’ l TV program called “To Catch a Predator” was VERY popular; & the mid-term election. So why is fear-based education wrong? Because it paralyzes parents and leaves children on their own online…. One, It suggests that there are no solutions – the problem is bigger than me, than my family, and there’s nothing I can do to help my child. Somehow the conclusion becomes, gov’t needs to pass protective laws, when laws can’t protect children who are the producers of a user-driven global medium that they update with expressions of their lives 24/7, 7 days a week, a medium that is now social, or behavioral. Two, fear too often causes overreaction; a fearful parents unplugs the computer or bans the Internet. And not only do our children love digital technology and media, these technologies are necessary tools for our children’s social, academic, and professional success. So what happens? Children want to get as far away from scared parents as possible, They go underground online, so that scared parents are no longer part of their online and mobile activities – right when parents’ care and interest is more important to their children than ever. It’s much better to give parents the accurate, research-based information that their children’s internet experiences are just part of their everyday lives, mostly school life – not something new and unknown that parents don’t know how to deal with. We need to inform and empower parents as well as young people.
  • So 49 state attorneys general threatened to sue MySpace; Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society played host to a national task force formed by MySpace as basically a settlement out of court. The attorneys general had a prescription before there was a diagnosis: age verification. So we were charged with finding the best age-verification solutions. Part of our work was a review of the research literature on youth online risk – the start of a diagnosis of the youth-online-risk conditions: Here are its key findings (slide), which really advanced all of our knowledge. Report: http://cyber.law.harvard.edu/pubrelease/isttf /
  • The next task force, the Online Safety & Technology Working Group under the Obama administration, which I had the honor of co-chairing (wrote about and linked to our report here <http://www.netfamilynews.org/?p=29092>), recommended better education for the public about both online risk AND young people’s use of social media. And we wrote about the value of a broad toolbox of protective technologies for parents to choose from, based on children’s constantly changing development and online activities as well as the continuously changing nature of technology. Our task force did not recommend any new laws because laws can’t regulate child development and behavior, which is largely what determines children’s experiences on the Internet.
  • A (very) brief history of US Internet safety

    1. 1. A (very) brief history of US Internet safety Anne Collier Co-Director ConnectSafely.org
    2. 2. Internet safety lawsCDA – passed 1996, struck down in 1997 byU.S. Supreme Court in unanimous decisionCOPA – passed in 1998, immediatelyblocked by a federal court (only thebeginning of its story)CIPA – became law in 2000; challenged incourts. Supreme Court upheld but modifiedCIPA in 2004.
    3. 3. Internet safety education• 1st five years (‘95-’00): No research, law enforcement primary source, common sense• 2nd five years: 1st national task force; research emerged, but misrepresented• 3rd five years: Series of social-media panics
    4. 4. Decreased exposure to harm In the US, 2000-’10, children’s exposure to online pornography declined 12% Declines in nearly all youth social problems in US:
    5. 5. EU Kids Online: Risk vs. harm
    6. 6. US’s social-media technopanic
    7. 7. 2008 ‘Berkman’national task forceReview of youth-risk research: Harassment & cyberbullying = most common risk Not all youth are equally at risk A child’s psychosocial makeup & environment are better predictors of online risk than the technology he or she uses No single technological development can solve youth online risk
    8. 8. Our report to Congress, June 2010...“Promote digital citizenship inpre-K-12 education as a nationalpriority.” – Youth Safety on a Living Internet: Report of the Online Safety & Technology Working Group
    9. 9. Thank you! Anne Collieranne@connectsafely.org