Computers, Privacy & the Constitution

Children and Freedom

Introduction: The False Hope of the Open Society

When I was in school, the common refrain of my and other progressive friends' parents was “I don't want you to keep secrets – if you share with me, I promise I won't judge you.” Instead of locking doors or stashing paraphernalia under the bed, we were free to experiment under the caring supervision of our elders. Even as teenagers, it was not uncommon to be interrogated – in a friendly way, of course – on the way out of the house as to who we were going to meet, what we planned on doing, and where we intended to be. Dinnertime, during which each of us would discuss our daily movements and activities with the rest of the family, was the highlight of our day. We readily trusted and shared without manipulation or coercion.

Nowadays, such memories are tinged with concern for the sinister long-term effects of desensitizing children towards seemingly benevolent systems of pervasive surveillance. The implicit presumption of such an approach – that empathy and open-mindedness are sufficient to render moot the need for privacy – is at odds with the hostile realities of public life and the unbenevolent intentions of that surrogate parent in the sky, the State. This is particularly true in the big data era, where the extent of information obtainable from a single communication is difficult to discern and can change after the fact as new and more powerful analytical tools are invented.

Teaching Children to Keep a Secret

Consequently, it is important for parents who advocate non-coercive openness to accept that their expectations carry more than the mere reciprocal obligation to tolerate the truth. Instead, a familial culture of sharing requires – perhaps even more than authoritarianism – a general limiting principle under which children can assert and strengthen their privacy rights in preparation for public life while simultaneously preserving the benefits of close integration. In the absence of such a principle, parents may find themselves unintentionally sacrificing a child's privacy interests in order to make it easier to protect them in the short-term. In addition to the immediate risk that a parent's empathy and open-mindedness proves insufficient to engender tolerance, this tradeoff also harms children by denying them critical learning opportunities to identify potentially malevolent requests for information from those in whom they entrust their wellbeing. This sense of judgment is crucial to develop in young children, as ultimately only they will be responsible for making sure that their secrets are safe.

The challenges associated with respecting a substantive right to children's privacy in the home are further exacerbated by the growth of the net, which offers near-limitless information for children to explore but also tempting new tools through which parents can conduct surveillance. Information now lives forever, and poor data-protection habits are reinforced by the myriad of unfree software that comprises the average web experience. Thankfully, as Eben pointed out, young children's data is currently of low saleability. But as big data analytics improve and the realm of advertising expands, this may change.

Does Privacy + The Internet + The Right To Read = Children's Liberation?

Despite the immensity of these issues, the true revolution doesn't begin until one starts to argue that in addition to internet access and privacy rights, children should also have a right to read whatever they want. Absent this right, the disruptive potential of internet access and privacy rights can be moderated through censorship. Similar moderation is possible with any other combination of two of these principles: “internet + the right to read” absent privacy allows control through surveillance, while “privacy + the right to read” absent the internet enables the regulation of information flow. But at the point where children have unmonitored access to all information all the time, parental authority as it currently exists is destroyed.

Personally, I say go for it – let's free some young minds. But i'm skeptical about the viability of a fragmented strategy that attempts to persuade people for each element independently and without frank acknowledgment of how they will interact if achieved. Even if one succeeds in persuading others about the merits of a particular element, when they put together all the parts of the puzzle and see the final product, their heads explode and they tend to become hostile again.

This is one of the main reasons many people are resistant to the arguments of privacy advocates. Beyond apathy or collective action problems, it is extremely difficult to believe in privacy, not just against large data-mining corporations but against the microcosmic data-mining of parents, friends and colleagues, when one cannot imagine how it would look in their own familial fiefdom. It is even more difficult with regards to the right to read, which implies corroborating rights to internet access and privacy and is equivalent in many respects to “a right to be free from parental control.”

The Way Forward

Is this strategic problem surmountable? Perhaps. Unlike the state, which is primarily in the power business and nurtures its citizens in its spare time, parents typically have benevolent intentions and can abandon tightly held beliefs if they believe them to truly threaten their children's wellbeing. As described above regarding privacy, there may be a way to frame the case for a right to read as protecting children against the manipulative power of the state rather than a direct attack parental authority. In order for such an approach to succeed, however, we must first dispel the state-as-surrogate-parent mentality that pervades much of public discourse and legitimizes both arbitrary parental authority and manipulative state surveillance under the guise of benevolent paternalism.

I am not sure whether this goal is possible in a world where living standards continue to improve so rapidly and the state takes ever greater responsibility for social welfare provision. Even if it is possible, I struggle to conceive of a holistic narrative of children's freedom that incorporates the various elements described above without coming across as condescending parental advice. Until then, I guess a one-step-at-a-time approach is the best to hope for.

992 Words

-- RohanGrey - 25 Apr 2013



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r4 - 14 Jan 2015 - 22:44:39 - IanSullivan
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