Will the children of the world be safe soon? Notes from day one

Judging from the substantial number of workshops dedicated to the issue of child online protection at the third Internet Governance Forum currently underway in Hyderabad, a veritable rescue mission for the children of the world seems to be underway. Or maybe not?

From a feminist and human rights based approach, the way the debates on child online protection have been led on this first day of the Forum is quite disturbing for a number of reasons. To begin with, a prevalent assumptions seems to be that censorship is the answer and is a good thing, so that the discussion mainly revolves around who should be responsible for the filtering, either the governments with laws to this effect or the private companies with their own codes of conduct.

Yet to determine whether filtering would solve anything, it first of all needs to be established what children should be protected from in the online environment. Here, as disparate issues as digital traces, cyberbullying and "grooming", technology-induced stress levels and child pornography get mentioned and sometimes lumped together indiscriminately. Of course, quite different constituencies belong to the group of the „perpetrators“ in each case, and there are prevalent pictures evoked of these. For instance, the exploitation of digital traces left by children is often discussed with reference to child molesters, who collect these traces to exploit the children in the real world. Interestingly, data-mining by businesses catering to minors is not considered in a comparable scope. "Grooming" similarly refers to adults trying to meet children online with the purpose of exploiting them sexually in the real world. It appears that the term has been adopted from the gay milieu, where it refers to older men hitting on younger men. As applied to the online world, where it connotes the danger of child molestation, the term arguably takes on quite homophobic connotations.

Cyberbulling, in contrast to grooming, may be engaged in by children as well as adults, which shows that children also may need to be protected from each other and hence require a code of conduct for online interaction. With respect to technology-induced stress levels, yet again, it is hard to see how filtering could have any kind of impact, unless it makes the content available over the interent so bland that children have no interest to pursue it any further and hence reduce their engagement with new media accordingly (this possibility was not explored as an option, of course 8-)).

Finally, child pornography has become the buzzword for those in favour of regulating the internet, and on the face of it, there seems to be a global consensus that child pornography is a bad thing. However, upon looking closer, many different ideas of what it is and why it is bad are held by different people. For instance, there is no agreement what constitutes a child: someone up to the age of 13? 16? 18? Or possibly an adult dressed up as a child? Or a computer-generated representation of a child? Similarly, there is no agreement on what constitutes pornography. Some understand it as the depiction of a sexual act involving at least two persons. Others already detect it in the lewd or „unnatural“ presentation of one person or one person’s genitals. Still others mainly associate depictions of violence including rape with child pornography. The definitions of course very much depend on what it is that people are trying to prevent: There are quite big differences between wanting to ban sexual activity of people under a certain age, or the commercial exploitation of children, or the consumption of child pornography by growing masses of people, or the violation of children’s bodies by force.

These differentiations would be the crucial ones to tackle further, and of course, they would have to be tackled in a gender-sensitive manner. From a feminist standpoint, it is glaringly obvious that exploitative forms of masculinity represent the central problem, coupled with the eroticization of power imbalances and sexual violence. While the internet has brought manifestations of these forms of masculinity and eroticism to the forefront, these features of our societies are eminently social and pre-date the internet. It is hence obvious that they cannot be solved by censorship. The moral panic induced by the current discourse on child pornography and child protection, just as the security panic related to terrorism, will possibly change the online environment through ever-increasing measures of censorship and surveillance, but they do not address the underlying causes for the behaviour they try to weed out and are thus ultimately ineffective in transforming societies in this direction. That would require a much more committed stock-taking and engagement with exploitative gender and sexual arrangements. Maybe today’s children will become the grown-ups of tomorrow who finally take this task on. But as of now, we are definitely not there yet.