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Wednesday, September 29, 2010

What Is The Answer?

My friend Tracy Mooney from McAfee (read her blog here) responded to my latest posting about Facebook with this question/statement: "Yes but how?"  A very short statement that sums up a huge problem with the online world - how do we make it safe for kids?  I can always count on Tracy to bring my lofty goals down to Earth :-).

In July, I wrote an article reviewing the Online Safety and Technology Working Groups (OSTWG) report on the current status of the online safety of children in the U.S. and their recommendations for improving the situation.  In summary, their research produced extremely valuable data and their suggestions fell far short of improving anything.  At that time I made some suggestions for how we as a nation might make the online world safer for kids.  The two primary suggestions I had were:

  1. Certified "Kid Safe" sites - a single organization (like the OSTWG) comes up with a set of standards and requirements that a website must meet to receive the certification.  A company like Google creates a browser that only allows access to these certified sites.  Schools and homes install this specialized browser on machines that children use.  The federal government legislates steep penalties for organizations that abuse the certification.
  2. Youth ambassadors/youth credibility - the message of good online citizenship must come from sources that kids view as credible.  That means people who know the online world as well as they do and people that aren't viewed by kids as being out of touch with the problems they face.  A national curriculum should be created (again OSTWG would be a good source for this) utilizing college age, young adults (much like youth ministers or camp counselors) to deliver the message.

Of course there is much more to this than the summary description I listed above.  Read the full article for complete details.

While I still strongly believe these ideas are sound and should be explored on a national level, I don't think either of these solutions would solve problems like the one presented by Facebook.  Here are the facts:
  • Facebook is unsafe for kids
  • Facebook is blatantly uncaring and uninterested in making their site safer for kids
  • Kids would still join Facebook despite my "Kid Safe" site certification idea.
In a perfect world, I would like to believe that sites and services like Facebook, Twitter, Skype, etc. would live by the adage: "with great power comes great responsibility".  All of these companies have become very lucrative and powerful from the success of their products.  Stepping up to the "responsibility" part of the equation should be the next step.  With all of their resources and momentum, they should set aside some money and R&D effort to come up with a solution.  They are obviously smart enough.  But apparently they aren't interested in being responsible and clearly we can't count on them to solve the problem.  Without their leadership, we are back to Tracy's question "Yes, but how?"

I was laying in bed thinking about all of this last night when something occurred to me (bear with me here).  In the early 1900's automobiles were the emerging technology in Europe and the U.S..  European government leaders recognized the dangers that these machines zipping around pedestrians and slow moving animals could create.  In 1903, Prussian leaders created a set of mandatory tests that drivers had to pass before receiving a certificate of privilege to drive.  Included in these requirements was a mandatory age, clear vision and hearing, and a baseline level of intelligence and responsiveness to typical scenarios drivers would face.  The driver's license was born and the concept quickly caught on and was adopted by governments all over the world (the first in the U.S. was New York, 1910). Today the emerging technology is cyberspace.  Is it time to come up with a license to use it?  Maybe so.

Imagine a culture that has embedded the online world into every part of their lives - communication, entertainment, shopping, news and information, banking, business interactions, etc.  Realizing the potential danger that abuse of such a system could cause, this culture's leadership comes up with a digital ID much like a driver's license.  You receive it when you are born and use it through life to identify and verify yourself when you go online making business and commerce transactions.  It would keep you out of harmful sites when you are young and give you more security when you shop and do your banking.  OH WAIT...we are that culture...why haven't we looked into developing the digital ID for all citizens?  Businesses have been doing it for years.  The digital signature is common for verifying digital transactions and verifying data in the corporate world.  The technology is there, why not take it to the next level and make a digital identity required just like a birth certificate and social security card?

This concept is nothing new and I certainly didn't invent this idea.  Digital visionaries have been kicking the idea around for 20 years.  The two big arguments that come up any time the concept of a required, national digital ID are:

  1. The infrastructure it would require to manage such a system would be huge and expensive - who would assume that responsibility?
  2. The "Big Brother" potential - people feel that this gives the government too much visibility into our private lives.

Here are my answers to those arguments.  First, Social Security is a big system, as is the State driver's license system.  But we do it because it's necessary.  How long will we keep our head in the sand and not admit that we have progressed to a point where digital ID's are now necessary? Let's also not forget that the federal government is spending billions trying to stimulate new business - grants for anyone to come up with any hair-brained idea they have.  Well, this would be a new business wouldn't it?  Put some stimulus money toward developing this.

Second, come on...the Big Brother argument is no longer valid.  If we as a nation were worried about government visibility into our private lives, we wouldn't be posting every mundane detail of what we do on our social media accounts.  Do you really think the government doesn't have visibility into that? When George Orwell's book 1984 came out, it scared people and a huge push for individuality and personal privacy ensued.  60 years later we have willingly sacrificed every shred of our personal privacy in the name of entertainment. What we have done with Facebook and Twitter would scare George Orwell.

Someone has to do something.  Our current solutions aren't working.  It's time that society wakes up and confronts this problem realistically.  What would have happened if our forefathers said "a driver's license is a silly waste of time"?  Would you venture out onto the roads knowing there are no minimum safety requirements or accountability for the other drivers around you?  No.  Then why are we doing it digitally?

So, my new, number 3 item on my list of solutions is personal digital ID's.  Let the nay-saying begin.


  1. Michael,

    It's my right to voluntarily give away my privacy as I see fit. There's a huge difference between a driver's licence and what you are advocating. All of the tools to keep kids safe online exist now. If a parent doesn't avail themselves of them, it's their fault, not the governments.

  2. Anonymous, I agree with you and I never said anything about any of this being the government's fault. Answer this question for me: if a parent fails to watch over his/her child and the child wanders into a bad part of town and is attacked, should the police step in to protect the child? There comes a time when a civilized society has to step up to protect those who cannot protect themselves, ESPECIALLY when those whose job it is to protect them aren't doing it. We are, after all, talking about kids here. Should we just ignore their safety because their parents are neglectful? Really?

  3. Oh and by the way Anonymous, if the "tools to keep kids safe online exist" then why was the North American Man/Boy Love Association able to maintain a public Facebook page that allowed members to trade child pornography and arrange meetings between adults and minors?

  4. I had no idea a simple question would spur a blog post. A great idea, but I think in this country the current laws and freedoms can stop ideas such as yours from becoming a reality.

    As for your comments to Anonymous, I wish to chime in...A group creating a page on facebook has nothing to do the tools anonymous is talking about. I use McAfee Family Protection (for obvious reasons) and it protects my teen from seeing content I deem inappropriate and also stops him from sharing personal information such as phone and address. That is what I feel is my job as a parent to use to protect my kids in addition to teaching them the skills they need to know when they are not on the home computer.

    Unfortunately, NAMBLA is going to keep doing all that they do because their are sick people in the world who want to believe that what they do is okay. Facebook has 500 million users creating pages everyday that they have to police. If you think that they were using facebook as the "primary means" of anything, I have some people for you to talk to that will tell you what they really use. The NAMBLA page is down, but that doesn't mean that my kids are safe from pedophiles. I have a sex offender living six blocks from my daughters school.

  5. Tracy, you are inspiring, what can I say? :-). You are right, there are good tools out there, but parents like you seem to be rare. I still maintain that we need to do something to protect the children of parents who are doing nothing. The existence of the tools do nothing. The application is everything.

  6. I hear you. I know many people who are working on the things you have mentioned. Hopefully sometime soon, those things will be in place!