The Internet Parent
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Monday, February 12, 2007

Reality, Not Science Project

The Internet changes everything - including how we treat it

"If we mess this up, we're doomed."

As reported by Erik Sass in Online Media Daily, so spake Elliot Schrage, Google's vice president of global communications and public affairs, at a meeting in New York to answer the question, "Does the Internet Change Everything?"

Well, my humble answer is, "Yes, the Internet does indeed change everything."

And, as the Internet changes, and as it changes our world, we need to STOP pretending that it's just a science project. It is fundamentally changing our world, and fundamentally imposing itself into our lives. And our kids' lives. And the fabric of our communities.

Is that bad? No, of course not. BUT, if we don't realize that an unfettered, uncontrolled, and uncontained Internet is no different than any other unfettered, uncontrolled, uncontained form of human behavior, we're in for a very dark time. As Liz Perle of Commonsense Media put it, "The inmates are running the asylum. They're creating content now, and they're far out ahead of us."

Most parents see the Internet as the best educational tool available to their kids. At the same time, they see it as the source of the most dangerous exposure. So what's a sensible way to think about things?

It's simple. We already limit and regulate: printed media; broadcast media; alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs; access to weapons; driving privileges; citizenship; zoning for certain kinds of businesses and housing; etc., etc., etc...

The list is endless.

Yet we don't limit or regulate the Internet. Why is that exactly?

Is it because we don't want to spoil it's chances to grow? Hello? Are you listening out there? The Internet is gutting several multi-billion dollar industries, and spawning several more. The economic dislocation caused by the Internet is staggering, and cannot be stopped. So I'm not exactly worried that the Internet will fail to achieve its economic potential.

Is it because it's wrong to violate freedom of expression? Give me a break. When you can go to a porn publication's website and they have the photographs that are "too hot for the magazine..." you know we've lost touch with reality on this one. Let's be clear: a magazine that you have to go to a store to buy, pay money to a real person, and perhaps even (good heavens!) show an ID to purchase CANNOT show pictures that are available with no more than a mouse click, a fake name, and a Hotmail address to anybody with a computer and a wireless card. We regulate all kinds of content in all kinds of ways, because its in society's best interests to do so, especially with respect to minors.

Is it because it's too hard? Not a good enough answer. We have chosen to hide behind the Internet's technological complexity and distributed structure for too long. We have chosen to ignore the social costs of disrupted childhood development, predatory sexual behavior, and damaged mental health, in favor of limiting the cost of making the Internet ubiquitous and cheap. Well, we regulate alcohol and it's pretty ubiquitous. We all could make our own wine (I do!) as readily as we can all post our own Internet content. And somehow, we still regulate alcohol.

Why not just let the parents be responsible?
Because the parents can't hope to control all of the ways their kids will gain access to the Internet. Whether it's through the school, their mobile phones, a friends' house, a cyber-cafe, or a hacker's website, kids will find their way on to the Internet. So parents simply do not have the tools to limit exposure in either quality or quantity. Yes, parents have to do their part. But the community as a whole needs to come together (at all levels - local, state, federal, and international) and accept the responsibility to manage, moderate, and regulate the Internet.

The Internet isn't "virtual reality", it IS reality.

It's the world as our kids know it.

The Internet is not some special, sacred resource. We shouldn't leave them exposed to the vicious, unscrupulous, and depraved just because the Internet is a cool invention. Just like in the "old" real world, we have an obligation to protect the weak (e.g., our kids), and constrain the destructive elements of society, as they both colonize the Internet.

The Internet changes everything. That means we have an obligation to change the way we look at it. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

That was depressing. Somebody out there, tell me I'm wrong.

WiFi Pedophiles vs. ICAC

Child Porn Smackdown Leaves Cops on the Mat

Authorities are struggling with WiFi, reports Jaimie Stockwell in the Washington Post. In WiFi Turns Internet Into Hideout for Criminals, we learn that Arlington County, VA detectives who were about to arrest a pedophile ended up at the home of a little old lady. Ooops...the suspected perp had been using her unsecured wireless Internet connection to trade child porn.

Once again, we see an apparently noble, democratizing technology - publicly accessible Internet through wireless communications - subverted by those who are suffering from a nearly invisible sickness, and used to threaten our kids and our common good.

This is hardly the end of the story, because currently law enforcement has no answer to this growing problem. In neighboring Alexandria, city officials are planning a 16-square-mile free municipal WiFi network. Has anybody thought to ask the parents if it's a good idea?

When are we going to get mad enough to wake up and stop the madness? While the USDOJ's ICAC (Internet Crimes Against Children) task forces have been created to fight this kind of problem, we are still behind the 8-ball -- arguably, further and further behind.

With free wireless internet access, predators have increasingly easy and anonymous access to our kids, who themselves are often using stray neighborhood -- or even municipal -- wireless Internet connectivity to side-step parental supervision, guidance, and controls.

Wake up!! Please!! Insist that your community think before deploying free public WiFi. Don't do it until you have some security and filtering policy in place. And ask that your community leaders raise awareness regarding the risks of unrestricted, uncontrolled WiFi networks across your neighborhoods. The cost of ignorance, apathy, and inaction will be more than you'll want to bear.

Do you have municipal WiFi in your city or town? Have you noticed unsecured wireless networks accessible from your living room? Let us know what's happening in your neighborhood.