“Digital Inclusion” and “Panic Buttons”

Posted on July 12, 2010

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Today has seen two big announcements about the internet. First up was the media coverage of the Digital Inclusion manifesto from the Champion for Digital Inclusion, Martha Lane Fox which sets out the aims and objectives of Race Online 2012. The other announcement is that Facebook have dropped their opposition to the CEOP “panic button” for reporting child abuse.

Digital Inclusion or Why People Shouldn’t Be Allowed To Make Their Own Choices

As a twenty-something Computer Science student I should be one of the strongest advocates of the internet being able to solve many problems and being the way forward and, within reason, I like to think I am. I spend a large amount of time browsing the web for interesting or informational sites and communicate with the majority of my friends online more often than I see them in person. However, in a number of ways I prefer more traditional methods to online solution. For example, I prefer wandering around the university library to searching online for the book, and indeed prefer real books to electronic versions (both for textbooks and fiction).

The Digital Inclusion manifesto, available at http://raceonline2012.org/, has the aim of making the UK the “first nation in the world where everyone can use the web” with specific targets of (their emphasis, not mine):

  • To inspire more people to try the internet
  • To encourage people to go online and reward them for doing so
  • To support those who need a helping hand

Nothing too unreasonable in these aims although if the internet is so important and useful then I’m not sure why people would need further rewards to get online. Indeed, even the aspiration that everyone should be able to use the web is acceptable. We teach everyone science to GCSE level after all and parts of the curriculum will never occur in everyday life.

However, as we read on, the manifesto descends into hyperbole and alarming but vague statistics. For example, “Years of research indicates that the same three reasons prevent more people getting online, a lack of: motivation, access or skills.”. Now this may well be true but no examples of this research are presented, mentioned or cited and I think many people would be pushed to think of another potential reason for not being online, possibly safety.

Another common sentiment is that “The old, the poor and the unemployed are least likely to use the web, so there’s a strong link between social disadvantage and internet non-use.”. Again no sources are cited but this does seem quite likely. However, a widely recognised principle in science is that correlation does not equal causation. That is, although there is a link between being poor and not being online there is no reason to assume that putting people online will raise them out of poverty. In fact, common sense would suggest that as people are lifted out of poverty through other means they find the money, desire and/or time to become digitally literate and to have a personal connection to the internet.

I could continue as I have found many faults with the approach taken by Race Online 2012 but I shall conclude with one final problem. Much of the manifesto is about improving access to training and in reducing the cost of going online. However, the main factor for being online given in the research by Race Online is that the internet was “Not for me”:

Key Barriers to Being Online from Race Online 2012

Key Barriers to Being Online from Race Online 2012. Available at: http://raceonline2012.org/manifesto/9

Yes, there are many reasons to use the internet but if people feel that they’re quite happy without using it should the government force them? One of the suggestions given is that “All government departments and agencies should follow DWP’s lead in identifying key information and services that they should expect working- age adults to pursue online.”. This could be interpreted in a number of ways but it seems to me that they are recommending the government make some services solely available online and that people will have to use the internet to access them. I can see why this is attractive to the government. As with commercial organisations, an online presence is much cheaper to maintain than a real store which need additional staff. However, the government is meant to serve the people and if people are happy to not use the internet they should not be forced online in order to access services.

This argument will be very familiar to people who frequent web forums, particularly those that discuss films, books, music or other creative areas. Often the argument is given that people who dislike a certain film or book “just don’t get it” and that if they understood it properly they’d think it was amazing too. My opinion on these arguments, as with some of the Digital Inclusion aims, is that people might understand something but still legitimately dislike it or not think it justifies the claims. Let’s not treat people like idiots if they don’t want to be online.

Panic Buttons or How Unicorns and Rainbows Can Make The Internet Safe

As I mentioned at the start, today Facebook announced that they had found a compromise with CEOP (the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre) and would allow CEOP to have an application on Facebook so that users can report abuse from any page.

This is the culmination of a long discussion between the two organisations and is being reported as a climbdown by Facebook after their opposition to having the CEOP panic button on every page. However, there will still be no button on every page and the only people who will see any link to CEOP will be those who willingly choose to add the application themselves. This is no different to Facebook than the developer of Farmville wanting to add an application to their site, of which there are many thousands. The only concession Facebook has made is to advertise the application to all children. And what does this application do? From what I can gather from media reports it simply links to the CEOP website where advice is held and abuse can be reported, as it could be if a user just went to their site anyway.

So, essentially, CEOP has spent a considerable amount of its’ resources campaigning for a button in order to settle for something they would have been able to do anyway. Has the campaign itself done any good? Admittedly, I hadn’t heard of CEOP before but there are surely better ways to raise their profile than a public slanging match with Facebook?

This is without considering the fact that CEOP is a UK initiative and as such, has no reason to demand a specific link on an international site that already has methods of reporting abuse. The examples normally given in such cases are purely designed for emotive responses and often ignore key facts. The Ashleigh Hall case was the focus of a media campaign that conveniently ignored the fact that she didn’t suspect any problems (or why would she have gone?) and was using MSN, which already published a CEOP button at the time.

As one commenter on The Register so eloquently put it:

“I do doubt (even with the current education standards) that these kids want to go off with someone to be attacked. So if they don’t think they are at risk why would they ever press a ‘panic’ button?”

There are dangers on the internet, just as there are in the real world but let’s have reasonable coverage and actually try to prevent the problem rather than for self-justification of these organisations. Nobody was ever killed with ‘the internet’, the same as nobody was ever killed with a phone call.

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