NOTE: What follows is a talk I wrote to give at one of two Safer Internet Day events in February, 2012. I delivered this speech to an event sponsored by Russia’s Safer Internet Day Committee, attended by academics, students, some government officials and Russian tech executives. The next day I was scheduled to speak again at a nationally televised government sponsored event alongside a number of senior government and industry officials. There was a long list of speakers but, just before it was my turn, the chairman gaveled the meeting to a close, saying they were out of time. A Russian contact of mine later confirmed that it was a deliberate move to censor me.
As it turned out, I was a bit naive in my expectations of internet freedom in Russia. The crossed out portions of this speech represent parts that I certainly wouldn’t say if I have this speech now.
Larry Magid, March 4, 2022
Talk by Larry Magid, co-director of ConnectSafely.org at Russia’s Safer Internet Day – Moscow, February 6, 2012
It is a great pleasure to be here. Even though I grew up during the cold war, I have always been an admirer of the Russian people and the many accomplishments of this great society. Ironically, the Cold War may have been an important reason why the United States is as prominent as it is in technology. Your successful launch of Sputnik in 1957 was the inspiration behind our own space program which led to many technological achievements in both countries.
Internet a Product of the cold war
Even the Internet was a byproduct of the cold war. Created by an agency of the United States military in the late 1960’s, it was designed as a decentralized network so that it would be invulnerable to a Soviet attack.
That decentralization is one of the reasons we enjoy such diversity and freedom. No one country owns the Internet and
while Americans no longer have to worry about a Soviet attack, freedom loving people around the world do have to worry about those who seek to censor the Internet.
Regulation and freedom
I’ve only been in Russia a few days, but already I see some similarities between our two peoples. Even though our histories are very different,
we seem to have arrived at a similar place. We are both tech savvy nations that love our freedom and love our gadgets. There are entrepreneurs and tech enthusiasts among us both, as well as some who are a bit less exuberant about all the benefits of technology. And, in both the U.S. and Russia there are those who err on the side of caution and those who like to – as we say in America – push the envelope. And though we come from very different traditions, both of our nations have a bit of tension between government and industry.
It’s by no means unusual for elected officials to be concerned about young people’s use of technology and to draft legislation to help protect our youth. But as you consider such legislation, remember that everything has its consequences. Sometimes the best meaning laws can actually do more harm than good. We know that in the United States because we have had a long history of regulation and industry self-regulation including some laws that have been overturned by our Supreme Court because they violated our precious First Amendment that guarantees all Americans freedom of speech.
The Internet has an enormous impact on all aspects of life including commerce, journalism and education and no single group has been more adaptive to technology than our youth. They have not just joined the technology revolution – they are leading it.
Just last week Facebook announced that it would float shares on the public stock market and is expected to raise between $5 and 10 billion to become possibly a $100 billion company. It was founded 8 years ago by Mark Zuckerberg while he was still a teenager. He is now only 27. Soon there may be as many as a thousand new millionaires in my community, bidding up the price of housing. Most of them are under 30.
Both Google and Yahoo were started by Stanford University students and even Apple – which is now the world’s most valuable company — was started by a young Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak when they were in their 20s
Innovation comes from freedom
It’s hard to know what sparks technological revolutions, but it’s no coincidence that they came from a country that values freedom of speech (2022 note: not true in Russia), Silicon Valley – where much of this innovation is taking place – is especially strong when it comes to freedom and tolerance.
Evolution of Internet Safety
I spent most of career as a technology journalist but around 1994, I turned my attention to Internet safety by writing the first popular Internet safety educational booklet on behalf of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC). There was no research at the time. I guess I can be forgiven for basing my advice on what I thought to be the situation. Now, thanks to a great deal of research, we can base advice on actual risks and a real understanding of how young people use technology and social media. For the past several years I have been a member of the board of directors of NCMEC which works very closely with industry in the United States to assure compliance with the law requiring them to report child sexual abuse issues and other online sexual crimes against children to the National Center which, in turn, sends the worst cases to law enforcement.
In 2006 I joined with Anne Collier, who you will hear from later, to form an NGO called ConnectSafely.org. Our NGO works very closely with the leading youth risk experts in the United States and other countries, including the federally funded Crimes Against Children Research Center and the E.U. Kids Online researchers, who work out of the London School of Economics.
Three have been phases of Internet safety
- During the 90’s and early 21 century we focused almost exclusively on pornography and predators
- Later we focused on things kids do to harm themselves and each other
- In 2009 we developed Online Safety 3.0 – to engage and empower youth and base our programs on actual research – not just guesses.
We now know that the vast majority of youth are using the Internet safely.
The number of problems, relative to the number of users, is quite low (2022 note: I would revise this if I were writing this today). It’s certainly lower than problems associated with life in the physical world. For example we hear a lot of about cyberbullying, but physical bullying in school is actually more common. We hear about predators, but 80% of all sex crimes against children involve adults and children who know each other in the real world. The perpetrators of these crimes could be teachers, clergy, police officers, doctors, child care workers who anyone else including, sadly the child’s parents or friends of their parents. Cases where a child is exploited based on an initial contact via the Internet are rare and almost always involve the child taking an extreme risk. Still, one exploited child is one too many which is why we must develop programs that target at-risk youth.
Despite what some people say, research from the best scholars in the U.S. and Europe have found that predators very rarely find victims online. They find them the old fashioned way – in their local communities.
It is popular to quote the U.N Convention on the Rights of the Child when we talk about protecting children, but we must not ignore article 13 which says “The child shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of the child’s choice.”
Child porn is a serious and special problem
It is important not to confuse child pornography or child abuse images with Internet safety. While the distribution of these terrible and illegal images may take place online, the crime always begins offline with an adult who has physical access to a child – often a child they know, and frequently their own children or children of family members.
The creation and distribution of child abuse images is a horrible crime, but it’s very rare for children to actually find these images unless they are being sent these images by someone they know or someone who is grooming them. It is important not to confuse child pornography – which is illegal in most countries including the U.S. and Russia, with adult sexually explicit material which, generally, is not prohibited by law.
Sexual exploitation is at an all-time low
While we talk about protecting children online it is important to know that during the very years that the Internet has grown, from 1992 to 2008, child sexual abuse in United States has decreased by 58%, according the Crimes Against Children Research Center (2022 note: I am not sure this trend is still in place)
At this conference we will be discussing partnerships between industry, government and civil society, but there is one very important group that often doesn’t get to go to conferences and that is the hundreds of millions of young people who use the Internet. They MUST have a voice and they must have the freedom to use the Net to express themselves, and move us all forward into what we hope becomes truly the golden century of international cooperation.
There are problems and we are all aware of them: pornography, bullying, adults who would harm children, but we must not let these problems take our attention away from the power and potential of the Internet and we must not exaggerate the problems. As we will show in our workshops, the Internet is a reflection of life and simply amplifies issues that we have been dealing for centuries
Later today, Anne Collier, myself, Daniel Kent and other experts will discuss filtering, laws, digital literacy educational programs and other efforts to help ensure that all of our children are not just safe from bad things but engaged in productive and healthy use of technology.
Thank you very much.