Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet & Technology



by Sarah Cortes

A major crossroads for technology trends, trendsetting individuals and thought regarding freedom, responsibility, and the law, Berkman is a unique and valuable place. Today's gathering reviewed Berkman's report to the 50 US states' Attorneys General entitled "Enhancing Child Safety and Online Technologies." John Palfrey, professor and librarian at Harvard Law, Berkman founder and general all-around respected person on these topics, presented, along with other task forced members.

Children's internet safety has become a high profile IT Risk Management and Security area these days. The report resulted from a consent decree entred into by MySpace.com and judicial entities as a result of series of horrific incidents relating to children's internet use. Some questions that arise are how the report addresses: 1) sexual predation by and of minors, 2) sexual solicitation by and of minors, 3) exposure to harmful content by and of minors, including violent and pornographic content.

It's interesting how language can be used to obscure what's going on. The report clarifies:
1) sexual predation by adult men of minor girls
2) sexual solicitaiton by adult man of minor girls
3) exposure to harmful content by adult men of minor girls, including content reflecting vacts iolent and degrading to women and girls, by adult men.

Even the word "predators" kind of depersonalizes things and makes them more comfortable. The uncomfortable reflection in this report is that the men engaging in these acts and practices are, for the most part, otherwise regular guys like our dads, brothers, husbands, and co-workers. How harmful and abusive behaviour against women and girls has become part of mainstream American culture is beyond the scope of this report, but there it is for all to read.

Viewed in much the same way as we view our daily squash match against a hapless opponent, sexual pressure and coercion are part of the daily sport, according to this report, of countless man and boys around the world. Although not attacking the roots of the problem, which seem to be entitled beliefs and attitudes among boys and men, social networking sites are neverthess beginnig to act, taking a detection and documentation approach, using age verification and Sentinal among tools and strategies to identify and screen out these predatory men and boys.

A technical advisory board comprised of representatives of 29 technology companies reviewd products and offerings of 40 submissions in response to the Berkman task force's RFP. It was, quite sensibly and not surprisingly, decided not to recommend any single technology or approach to protect minors on the internet. Some feedback from the 50 states' Attorneys General is that the victim and predator profiles in Berkman's research are inconsistent with actual arrest records of internet predators. Berkman has sought access to the arrest records, but so far none has been provided. Another objection was that Berkman's data must be outdated. In fact, John Palfrey elucidated, the data is consistent with the most recent data set, that from September 2008.

Berkman Center has once again performed a service with its excellent research on this important topic. A next step might be to step back and consider solutions that go to the root of the problem as numerous organizations who work with violent, exploitative, abusive men and boys have recommended. Ironically, a lot of money and effort is being spent on technical solutions which allow us to keep re-detecting the same problem, which is simply grouwing over time. Like preventive health care, money would be well spent on prevention of abusive, predatory behaviour by men and boys, and all abusers, not just money spent on detection and documentation of their crimes after girls lives have been ruined.

copyright 2009 Sarah Cortes

You can read Sarah's other tech columns at IT Knowledge Exchange