Think of the Children!
Facebook proposes an under-13s ‘Junior’ version of its social networking site and Milena Popova explains why she finds herself, unusually, responding with a call for someone to ‘think of the children’.
I am usually the last person to cry "Think of the children!" It is a rallying cry too often used to restrict the rights of adults without having any measurable impact on children's lives. Want to impose your 19th-century morality on the country? Think of the children - we need to block all porn on the internet! (And never mind Page three of the Sun - that's run by our good friend Rupert Murdoch.) Want to read the nation's emails? Think of the children - by accessing your communications data we'll catch paedophiles! (If you're not a paedophile you have nothing to fear! You're not a paedophile, are you?)
And yet, as Jenny Thomas points out in her latest ORGZine article, such initiatives more often than not are actively harmful to children and infringe on their rights. Yet when it comes to the news that Facebook is considering opening up its service to the under-13s, "Think of the children!" is precisely what comes to mind. This is not because I'm afraid that kids will suddenly start looking at porn on the internet: they already do. We need to address our attitudes to sexuality to fix that, not censor the internet. Neither am I, frankly, terribly worried about young children being groomed on Facebook by paedophiles. Hype notwithstanding, the vast majority of child abuse perpetrators are people children already know and trust.
What I am worried about is the kind of attitude and behaviour that Facebook would normalise for these kids when it comes to privacy and identity. Facebook's entire business model is predicated on getting users to share as much information as possible about themselves. That's because on Facebook, you're the product. Your information and your attention span are being sold to advertisers around the world, for the benefit of Mr. Zuckerberg & co. Facebook wants to know if you're gay, so it can serve you ads for lesbian cruises; it wants to know if you have a cat, to serve you adverts for Whiskas; it wants to know that you're a role-player, so it can serve you ads for steampunk jewellery.
The bigger the data set Facebook - or any organisation - collects on you, the higher the chance that they can figure out something about you that you don't want them to know. I'm willing to bet that for most people of a certain age, Facebook was the first time they put their real name on the internet. This was back in the day when Facebook still vaguely cared about its users' privacy; when your information wasn't publicly visible by default and to add someone as a friend you generally had to know them. Still, I remember the first time I looked at Facebook's sign-up page. I was absolutely horrified by the amount of information they wanted from me, and I refused to give it -I didn't sign up.
I'd been elmyra for all things online for ten years at that point and that had been good enough. I cracked a few months later, though I was very careful to separate my Facebook activity under my real name from any online activity as elmyra. Merging the two took another three years and was a huge step for me. I agonised about it for a while, consciously weighing up costs and benefits. I locked down a lot of old content and started being a lot more careful about what I said. For younger people today, being transparent and sharing anything and everything on the internet is the default.
Facebook and other similar services have gradually eroded our resistance to this kind of public sharing, to the point where a young person entering the digital world today sees this kind of behaviour as the norm. If everyone does it, then where's the harm in me doing it too? Now Facebook is trying to get even younger kids to buy into its model of a post-privacy world. While US law stipulates a number of safeguards for under-13s using social networks and other online services, and Facebook is apparently looking at giving parents control over certain activities on their kids' accounts, it is questionable whether parents themselves have the knowledge and tools to preserve their children's privacy online.
My Facebook wall is full of baby pictures and updates from proud parents on what their offspring achieved today. This time lapse video of a child aging from new-born to 12-year-old which went viral a few months ago is a great example of how parents can get carried away with the possibilities of technology without thinking of the consequences. Is the video very very cool? Yes. Will Lotte thank her parents for her 15 minutes of fame once she gets older? Remains to be seen. It is time to start having a conversation with children - and parents - about what our ubiquitous, transparent online presence really means; about how much power we're giving away to organisations which rarely have our best interests at heart. “Facebook Junior” is probably not the right way to do that, so will somebody - please! - think of the children?
Milena is an economics & politics graduate, an IT manager, and a campaigner for digital rights, electoral reform and women's rights. She is also a member of ORG's board and continues to write for the ORGzine in a personal capacity. She tweets as @elmyra
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