The Internet Parent
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Thursday, March 22, 2007

COPA: “Curses! Foiled Again…!”

Cue the villain music…but for whom does it play?

The Child Online Protection Act has been struck down yet again on freedom of speech grounds. For those of us who want to protect our kids from Internet Porn, is Judge Lowell Reed the villain? The ACLU? The porn industry? Is it the mindless, blind defense of capitalism and “the market” for porn, information, or whatever else is for sale on the Internet? Some Internet-Uber-Alles fan club? Is the villain a distorted interpretation of the First Amendment? Or is it COPA itself?

Actually, it’s laziness.

COPA is almost NINE YEARS OLD and has never been enforced. It’s been struck down twice before (once already by the Supreme Court). Why are we still arguing about it?!

I read through the various perspectives on the case, both current and historical (start with this March 22, 2007 article by Maryclaire Dale of the Associated Press). I am alternately frustrated at the lack of progress in getting the job done, and appalled that we’re relying on such an indefensibly simplistic and dim-witted legal construction.

The law has always been fatally flawed. But hey -- it was easy to write, made good press, and enabled lawmakers to bloviate, passionately and righteously.

So that’s what we got.

The problem is that the law is only one aspect of the problem. There are at least five major stakeholders who have to get involved, constructively and cooperatively, for us to have a chance. The way I see it, those five are:

  1. The content providers themselves – That includes pornographers as well as content-hosting sites like MySpace and YouTube. Self-identification, self-sorting, and self-policing in line with "sensible" disincentives for non-compliance. Any number of simple approaches would be a welcome start. In other words, make it easier for the rest of us to separate the good from the bad (or, the wanted from the unwanted).

  2. The technology providers – Like Blue Coat. More of us need to scour our portfolios for technologies that can help, and seed/gift them if necessary. We’ve all got idle assets in our closets, and in the right forum, they can make a world of difference.

  3. ISPs – Because the ISP is the guaranteed first and last stop for content. An ISP is a gate through which the content must pass, and with which a user must engage. The ISP industry can play a much more authoritative and compelling educational role. And they can play a real role in crafting workable policy, too, as long as the end result won’t induce a legal-liability coma, which is what they universally fear.

  4. Government – we need our best legislative, judicial, and law-enforcement minds on this problem. COPA was dead before it was dry. Come on, guys – this is NOT the best you can do, and it certainly isn’t right for 2007 (if it ever was, even in 1998). This is too important. And our law enforcement people are absolutely crying for better tools in this fight.

  5. Community organizations – Lions Club. The Rotary. Boy Scouts. The PTA. Civic organizations and churches. You have a way to reach your community members and help raise awareness. Ask a technology provider, ISP, or law-enforcement official to come and speak to your community. And get the BUTTS in the SEATS. We won’t have community action until we accept this as a community issue.

  6. Oh yeah. There’s one more.

  7. You. I don’t think this one requires any explanation. If it does, visit Traffic Control - America's Fight Against Internet Porn. (Full disclosure: yours truly was interviewed for the film).
So let’s agree that the villain music is being played for US – all of us who continue to fail our children, from our community leaders to our captains of industry to our government.

And it’s up to us to become the hero of this drama, and demand a set of laws, technologies, and accountabilities that works with and for all the key stakeholders, and compels action equally and fairly across our communities.

One of my life heroes is quoted as saying, “We get the government we deserve.” This quote is attributed to many, but I like to cite Mohandas Ghandhi, because of what he said next: “When we improve, the government is also bound to improve.”

What are we waiting for? Could it be leadership? Here’s a clue: Find a mirror…

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Attention! Attention! See Me Right Now!

Narcissus Is Let Loose Among Us

I chanced across Look at Me, World! Self-Portraits Morph Into Internet Movies in March 18, 2007 New York Times (free registration required). It was an article about art, the evolution of art, and the democratization of the process of creating art through digital photography.

Noah Kalina’s "Everyday", a movie that is composed of 2,356 daily self-portraits shot from Jan. 11, 2000, to July 31, 2006, was selected for the exhibition "We're All Photographers Now", on display at the Musee de l’Elysee in Lausanne, Switzerland.

William Ewing, director of the museum, commented,
"Digital technology, computers, software and the Internet multiply the number of people with access to taking and viewing pictures. Once you buy the camera, there are almost no other costs. That is increasing the variety and creativity in how people take pictures, and what they do with them."

Tens of thousands of viewers and links have accumulated around Kalina's movie. And hundreds of similar movies, with their accumulations of thousands of links and viewers, are out there.

Jonathan Lipkin, a professor of digital media at Ramapo College in New Jersey (and author of "Photography Reborn") commented,
"The hallmarks of the new age of digital imagery are distribution, combination and manipulation. The use of digital technology is especially revealing in portraiture. The digital camera has changed the genre."

Lipkin continued,
"Digital technology has changed what portraits look like. If you pay attention to Facebook, MySpace, Flickr and the other social Internet sites, you see right away..."

See what right away? Lipkin says, " stylized the portraits are."

What I see right away is different. I see obsession with self -- as a substitute for self-awareness -- running amok through our "youth culture". What's disturbing is that whether it's YouTube, AtomFilms, MySpace, or Photo Bucket, young people are seeing that it's stimulating to put yourself on display, even if you have nothing really to say other than that you are there. And, it's so easy...

I love art, and I'm all for the democratization of creating and consuming art. I'm not trying to answer (or even ask) the question "Is this really art?"

I'm after a different question entirely:
  • Is the young person's drive to exhibit him- or herself more potentially dangerous and damaging now than it was before the Internet?
If so, I suggest that this trend is one more reason that our old parenting techniques need an update.

Before the Internet, we didn't really have to worry that a teen's self-absorption would escalate to full-blown self-obsession through a system of global, peer reinforcement.

Today, however, we very much have to. More and more kids (and adults) are indulging in self-obsessive behavior (because, hey, it's easy!), and more and more of us, first as voyeurs, are observing that it's "the in-thing to do", and then, falling into it ourselves. Peer-reinforced behavior. Not just kids, but both kids and adults, reinforcing both kids and adults.

Realizing that the "hallmarks of digital imagery are distribution, combination and manipulation," and that "once you buy the camera, there are almost no other costs", we find a perfect recipe for kids to experiment with, using the Internet as their audience.

As I'm fond of saying, technology companies invent the tools of the future, then kids take those tools and invent the culture of the future.

So, I guess the real questions are, "Are kids creating a culture in which narcissism is a virtue, and considered an art?" and "Is that healthy?"

What do you think? Am I missing the point? Just too old to be hip? For that matter, is this blog just a different form of narcissism? Comments, please.

Friday, March 09, 2007

John Couey Guilty -- and Who Else?

Now the Choice: Hatred or Action?

By now, you've heard that John Couey has been convicted of kidnapping, raping, and murdering 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford. And that Couey was a convicted sex offender, a repeat offender, and generally a menace to children. I happened to be tuned in to CNN and caught much of their coverage.

That John Couey's behavior is monstrous there can be no doubt. Horrible. Anyone with an ounce of humanity finds his behavior depraved and unconscionable. And the Lunsford family has suffered a grievous, soul-fracturing loss.

It's easy to hate John Couey. Our revulsion and disgust, rage and wrath come easily and naturally. A ready focus, a clear target, and an obvious consequence.

Go ahead and embrace it -- for five minutes.
Because that's all we have time for.

Now, turn your attention to the real problem. The harder problem. The one that is sitting in your home and in your community and across our culture right now.

"Where does the next John Couey come from, and how do we stop creating more?"

The solution to this problem is not going to come through the expression of rage or hatred, no matter how justified. It's not a sprint, it's a marathon. And it's not an individual event -- it's a team game. Because the next John Couey isn't made over night. It takes repeated exposures to violence, abuse, and sexual distortion. And as an individual, you'll never stop the machine that churns out John Coueys. We have to work together, every day for as long as it takes, to change the way our culture raises our kids.

You think you're the parent? Think again. TV, video games and movies that glorify erotic violence. Violent, misogynistic music. The unlimited content available on the Internet. These are all powerful influences on your kids that are extraordinarily hard to remove from their lives. And the Internet in particular is completely unconstrained in what kind of content goes to whom.

To wait for some unassailable study; to deny the impact of these technologies on our kids is deliberate self-delusion. It flies in the face of hundreds of years of human experience and billions of dollars in advertising. What we perceive that others do and think undeniably influences us. The more vividly those impressions are made, the greater the influence. And don't take my word for it. Here's a story and survey from AOL News that asks a shockingly, sadly pertinent question: Should parents be more concerned about their teenage daughter having sex, or their teenage daughter posting a blatantly suggestive video of herself on YouTube? Read through the comments for an illuminating perspective on YOUR culture.

I'm not here to tell you I know all answers -- or even all the questions. But I can promise you this: If we don't get a handle on the media our kids have access to; if we don't fundamentally address the ubiquity of violence, extreme sexual content, and the two in combination; and if we don't raise the bar AS COMMUNITIES -- not just as individuals -- in demanding that technology serve OUR needs as families, we're going to be attending a lot more funerals, seeing a lot more shattered families, and feeling a lot more rage and hatred. Because there will be a lot more John Coueys.

Hatred and rage might be natural. Seeing a child rapist locked away or put to death might make you feel better. But it won't stop the next John Couey.

What are you doing in your community?

Monday, March 05, 2007

Public Libraries, Porn, and Naked Excuses

Even My Mom Would Not Approve

I was pointed to this Rochester Democrat and Chronicle column last week, "Filtering Internet porn not as simple as it sounds", by Mark Hare. It's a column that hits close to home (more on that later). Hare asserts that blaming librarians when public libraries leave kids vulnerable to porn is a mistake.

Do librarians care? Sure they do. But there is a certain combination of institutional lethargy, defensiveness, and lack of knowledge that is unacceptable, mind-boggling (especially for a library), and, sadly, rather commonplace. Just recently in El Paso, Texas, one parent was so outraged at what he saw another patron viewing at the city's public library -- with his kids nearby -- he took his concerns to KFOX-TV, which then reported on the story. The public library was allowing pornography to be viewed, with no filters and no privacy screens. The director of the library's response? Quote: "We do not monitor what people are looking at on the computer." The story resulted in a trivial improvement (privacy screens) and a very illuminating response (and quite illustrative of my point).

Libraries use very poor excuses for why they don’t filter. Let’s look at a few (and we can draw from the El Paso response for reference):

  • “It’s a matter of policy because filters are not completely effective.” -- WHAT?! Give me a break. That’s the moral equivalent of “We shouldn’t pass laws because there will always be those who break the law and get away with it.”

  • “Filters can block important information.” -- This is the juvenile, “I don’t wanna ‘cuz it’s too hard” response. I say, do your homework and find filters that work well. And demand better and better filters from your vendors. Send George Wolf (chairman of the Monroe County Library System) my way. Our products aren’t perfect, but we’re not afraid to be challenged to make them better. And if his filter can’t tell the difference between a chicken-breast recipe, a breast-cancer research site, and (and admittedly, many can’t), he’s not doing his homework.

  • “Filters deliver a false sense of security.” -- So, instead, the library leaves me with NO security? My choice is to either restrict my kids from going to the library or to stand next to them while they’re there? What kind of public resource is THAT?

  • “Violation of First Amendment rights.” -- This excuse is the biggest red herring out there, in my opinion. Every library makes an editorial decision about what content they’re going to have. EVERY library. Why? Because they have limitations on budget. They have to decide what books, periodicals, and other media they are going to offer. They have to decide what tools and services they’re going to offer. It’s simple enough to say, “It is our decision that, given our budget constraints, our goals, and our community obligations, that it’s a higher priority for us to deliver Internet access for EVERYONE than it is for us to create two classes of service, manage the logistical, physical, and practical implications of offering and validating access to two classes of service, and dealing with the potential risks and liabilities (both community and institutional) of failing to do so perfectly." Just because Hustler publishes a magazine doesn’t mean your community library has an obligation to supply it to you.
From my vantage point, constitutionally protected first amendment rights have absolutely NOTHING to do with this issue. The library is not violating the rights of the citizens to view, nor of the publisher to post, such content. It’s just saying, “We don’t offer that here.” What would they say if they didn’t have a book title? “You can probably get that at the local bookstore (or on Amazon).” To argue otherwise is (in my opinion) specious, distracting, and disingenuous.

Librarians, above perhaps all adults, have an innately altruistic intention toward their young charges (one could say the same about the clergy, by the way...). But that doesn't stop them from being short-sighted, exhausted by institutional malaise, or ill-informed.

As I have written previously, it’s time we stopped treating the Internet as some sacred science project and started to treat it like the cultural and sociological tsunami that it is. That means that libraries (and all community institutions, for that matter) have to stop saying, “It’s too hard”, “We don’t know how”, and “It’s not my problem”, and start raising their game. The entire range of human behavior, from the most noble to the most depraved, is accessible on the Internet. Surely, as communities, institutions, and parents, we have a compelling interest in managing and modulating our kids’ exposure to this broad range, especially when the most depraved content is often presented in the most seductive, misleading ways -- exactly the kind of thing that turns kids into victims.

The road to establishing our children’s safety from Internet dangers is a challenge. It starts with commitment from everyone - the parents, community leaders and institutions, law enforcement, service providers, and technology vendors. At the end of the day, Internet safety is not a personal issue, censorship issue or technology issue...but a community issue. We all need to get on board, and leave our excuse-filled baggage behind.

Full disclosure: My mother, aunt, and cousin were/are career librarians. Most of my family is in the education field. So snapping at librarians and library personnel doesn't come easily for me. But when learning institutions stumble into sophistry aimed at self-preservation, at the expense of their fundamental mission and the well-being of their constituents, I get ornery, and am compelled to call them out.

What do you think libraries should do? And what's going on at your local library? Please share your thoughts and experiences.