The internet is a powerful resource that can empower learning, communication and innovation. However, the assumption that this shared environment is a child-friendly one has never held up to much scrutiny.
That falsehood has again fallen under the spotlight in recent months, with reports of disturbing and inappropriate children’s content being surfaced on Youtube by the website’s own recommendation algorithms. However, as easy as it is to focus on the potential short-term consequences of children encountering inappropriate content - to do so would likely see you lose sight of the bigger picture.
We live in a world where it’s increasingly common for employers to make hiring decisions influenced by search results and increasingly necessary for adults to learn to manage their digital footprint. When online, we operate under the assumption that what we say, do and post can’t be easily erased. Children using the internet are at a significant disadvantage when it comes to navigating this same situation.
Predicting the exact consequences of any unintended digital baggage is a murky proposition, but it’s clear that this isn’t something that most children are equipped or informed enough to appropriately deal with.
The internet is not a “safe place” for children - and it never has been - in much the same way as a road isn't a safe place for children.
Highlighting these hazards in their 2018 Threats Predictions Report, McAfee say the kinds of “digital artifacts” that users leave can be broken into three types: explicit, implicit and inadvertent.
Explicit content is basically everything that happens after you click the “I Agree” button on the terms and conditions or end user license agreement. It’s the data stored by companies on the way you access their platforms and services. It’s the kind of data that - while you assume will be kept private - might eventually make its way into the public light via data breaches or leaks.
Then, implicit content is anything you do or say in an otherwise public place, which could be photographed, recorded and then posted online. Finally, you’ve got inadvertent content. This is what McAfee considers to be the kind of content that poses the highest potential risk level to children.
As McAfee put it “These are items that were intended to remain private, or were never expected to be captured. Unfortunately, inadvertent content is becoming increasingly common, as organisations of all types (accidentally or on purpose) bend and break their own privacy agreements in a quest to capture more about us. Whether with a toy, a tablet, a TV, a home speaker, or some other device, someone is capturing your child’s words and actions and sending them to the cloud. This is the most challenging part of the digital journey, and one that we must manage vigilantly. Pay attention to what you buy and install, turn off unnecessary features, and change the default passwords to something much stronger!”
Again, the internet isn’t a safe place for children but that’s not to say that teaching them how to responsibly navigate it - as they do with roads, cities and other unsafe places - is an impossible task.
Of course, these issues might well be solved by a hotly-debated development: the “right to be forgotten”. A once-obscure privacy issue, the notion that individuals should have a right to or a path of recourse to amend their digital footprint has been growing in popularity since the European Court of Justice (ECJ) set precedent by ruling in the favor of a man named Mario Costeja González. González took Google to court over ignored efforts to remove two newspaper pages from 1998 (since republished online) that publicized his bankruptcy at the time.
You can read more on the case and the history of the Right To Be Forgotten over at Techworld.
Since that ruling, the right of an individual to request access to or erasure of any personal data related to them has been incorporated into the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), due to come into effect this month. McAfee predict that the GDPR could play an important role in setting ground rules on the handling of both consumer data and user generated content in the years to come.
They say - perhaps optimistically - that “the year 2018 may well best be remembered for whether consumers truly have the right to be forgotten.”
If that does indeed prove to be the case, there could be huge ramifications for the relationship that children have with the internet. While the Right To Be Forgotten might not necessarily make the internet safe, it will make it safer. A world where the right to be forgotten is entrenched as the norm is still one where children might make mistakes about what they post or see online. However, it’s also one with a clear path of redress and resolution for those mistakes.
That’s a lot more than we have now.