The group, which reports to the Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration, is totally unfunded. The government wasn’t even able to buy us lunch, let alone plane tickets to Washington. But I’m not complaining. It’s an honor to have even a small role in helping to shape national Internet safety policy.
To be honest, I was a bit skeptical when I first heard about the working group, wondering why we needed yet another committee to look at this topic. In 2000, the “COPA Commission,” created by the Children’s Online Protection Act of 1998, issued a very comprehensive report, and last year I was privileged to serve on the Internet Safety Technical Task Force — created by attorneys general of nearly every state.
The task force issued a report debunking myths about Internet safety, concluding that kids are more at risk from other kids than from so-called Internet predators. That finding was rejected by several of the state attorneys general who received it. South Carolina Attorney General Henry McMaster said the report’s findings were “as disturbing as they are wrong,” adding that “the conclusions in this report create a troubling false sense of security on the issue of child Internet safety.”
But I think the report was both accurate and insightful. It recognized that Internet safety is too complicated to be reduced to sound bites and sensationalist TV shows, and that most of the kids who get in trouble online also get in trouble offline. The Internet may amplify dangers, but it doesn’t create them.
I’m not aware of any federal Internet safety commissions that met during the Bush administration. From what I can tell, that administration paid very little attention to Internet safety other than to add to the exaggerations and fear-mongering about so-called Internet predators.
So is there any point in taking yet another look at Internet safety? Yes, if only because things have changed dramatically over the past few months. To begin with, we have a new administration led by a president who actually understands the Internet as well as the constitutional issues that arise whenever government tries to control online speech, access or even safety.
When the new working group convened Thursday, our first speaker was Susan Crawford, who works at the White House as special assistant to the president for science, technology and innovation policy. A law professor and founder of OneWebDay, Crawford brings a refreshing understanding of the government’s need to balance safety and security with civil liberties, privacy and even the First Amendment rights of minors.
Her opening remarks helped set the tone for the group by admonishing us to “avoid overheated rhetoric about risks to kids online,” pointing out that “risks kids face online may not be significantly different than the risks they face offline.”
She also reminded us that “the risks are more subtle than the press would have us believe,” and that we need to avoid trying to find “silver bullets” and recommending policy based on “anecdotes.” Finally she pointed out that we need to be careful to avoid “tech mandates.” While the working group will research the efficacy of technology tools to help protect kids, Crawford repeated something that I have been saying for 12 years: “The best software (to protect kids) is between the ears,” not on a device.
The working group will be divided into four subcommittees: child pornography reporting, data retention, protection technology and education. I will chair the education subcommittee and look forward to hearing from companies, educators, nonprofits and anyone else who has ideas about how to educate America’s youth to keep on using the Internet productively and safely. If you have ideas, please feel free to share them.