Thursday, May 10, 2007

Protecting children vs. free speech

Over the years I’ve attended a lot of EU events focusing on children’s use of and behaviour on the internet. One issue that is rarely raised in these EU events is the unfortunate tension between child protection and free speech. Many experts in the EU advise using filtering and blocking tools in particular with young children, who might be exposed to ‘harmful’ content on the web.

Although I understand their concerns, I worry about the EU funding development of such tools, mainly because research in this area is easily repurposed by governments to restrict freedom of speech and access. For instance, these technologies are used by China for it’s ‘Great Firewall’ (euphemistically termed the ‘Golden Shield’) and Burma to block access to controversial or critical websites. Indeed, Thailand recently blocked YouTube across the country, due to the posting of some rather silly but obviously critical videos about the King of Thailand.

At the same time, many free speech activists are constantly developing tools that allow users to subvert controls and filters; any smart kid could search for them on Google and thus subvert parental controls. Reminds me of the famous Star Wars quote: “the more you tighten your grip, […] the more […] will slip through your fingers.”

It’s a difficult issue, which I hope to raise today during the working group being chaired by Sonia Livingstone at the EU expert media seminar.