Law in the Internet Society

Should A Child Have The Right To A Blank Slate?

-- By RebeccaBonnevie - 06 Nov 2017

In 2013 the Huffington Post ran an article saying that photos of a newborn baby appeared online within 60 minutes of their birth. While the data may not stand up to a rigorous statistical analysis, the idea behind it remains true – parents control when and how their children are uploaded and often start sharing them on day one of their lives.[1]

The motivations behind sharing one’s children with friends and strangers are not novel – pride, joy and solidarity – but the reach of a parental share today is a lot larger than yesteryear. Whereas sharing used to be showing a supermarket cashier a string of wallet photos, today many parents are very comfortable opening their child’s life up – images, personal identifiers, experiences and details – to all the parent’s connections on social media platforms.[2]

Protection of children online is currently focused on protection against online predators. This is obviously very important, but I feel like society is missing a more uncomfortable piece of the puzzle: a child’s right to a blank slate.

What is a blank slate?

I see two parts to a blank slate. First, concealing the majority of personal identifiers. The first thing a parent usually posts is the child’s full name, birth date, location (possibly inferred) and other miscellaneous details (birth weight, caesarian-section etc). Thus, within the first day of life social media platforms learn a baby’s family links and personal identifiers. Second, hiding a child’s image. With facial recognition becoming more reliable year on year, images of a person will give online platforms all sorts of information about them: associates (family and friends), frequent locations, likes and dislikes, habits, commonly used brands etc.

As Apple has recently been emphasizing, current facial recognition software has much lower ability to distinguish between children's faces. and infants are---as you know from experience---much more alike than even pre-toddler children. Neural network-based facial recognition is not going to be able to associate an infant's, or even a child's image, with the face of a teenager or adult human being anytime soon, probably ever.

But no one has ever had a blank slate…

I agree to an extent; previously parents would make birth announcements in a local paper, and a child may find themselves inheriting a legacy or reputation from a parent/sibling. However, this information was either difficult to access or had limited geographic reach. Generally, today’s parents defined themselves online, rather than inherited an online presence.

A fairly recent European Court of Justice case held Google had to comply with a Spanish man’s “right to be forgotten”. There is no such right in the US, as it is seen to contradict the constitutional right to free speech, but I wonder whether a right to be forgotten will develop as the online-from-birth generation grow up. The first newborn to be put on a newly launched Facebook will now be 10/11 years old. We don’t yet know how they will react once they inherit the key to their digital castle, or how it will affect them in their studies, employment or personal lives. Perhaps society’s values will have changed so much the parental overshare will not be an issue. Alternatively, we may see a new type of teenage rebellion: suing their parents for breaching their right to privacy as children.

What protections are out there?

The UNICEF 10-Point proposal on the e-rights of children includes the right to privacy in electronic communications: “the right to withhold personal data on the Internet and to preserve their identity and their image from possible unlawful use.” However, for this to be an effective right it needs to be enforced against parents, family and friends or it will be undermined from day zero.

Under French privacy laws parents could face penalties as severe as a year in prison and a fine of 45,000 if convicted of publicizing intimate details of the private lives of others – including their children – without their consent. This is the closest to the right to a blank slate, though it comes with a set of logistical challenges: at what age can a child give consent; is enforcement based on complaints or will it proactively protect children; and what is the appetite for putting a parent in jail for oversharing about their child.

Can a blank slate even exist nowadays?

I have two children and though we didn’t go quite this far, my husband and I have chosen not to put many personal details nor their faces online. I have two main observations thus far. First, it is tricky socially. This is nothing that cannot be overcome, but it means reminding people at birthday parties and public gatherings of our position (and usually taking one then removing ourselves from the photos so they can get a shot they can post), and dealing with defensive comments and strange looks from other parents.

The second observation, is that we haven’t succeeded. We’ve never had anyone test it, but I know there are innocently posted photos from weddings, birthdays, and other events online, and if facial recognition software crawled the web I imagine my children would show up in photos strangers have taken of them (yes that happens), and in the background to many more.


While it can be seen as a futile exercise given the tsunami of information that intentionally or inadvertently ends up online, I still believe that children should have a right to as much of a blank slate as we can muster. While there are movements in some parts of the world towards this, I think it will take a global societal change for the default position to be to protect a child’s privacy.

______________________________________________________________________________________ [1] Some children appear online in an in-utero shot, but in not wishing to begin a discussion about where a woman’s rights stop and a child’s rights start, I am going to use day 0 as the start point of the child’s right to a blank slate.

[2] I say “very comfortable” with sharing, but I believe more often than not a sharer-parent has not thought very hard about possible consequences of their actions.

The details here seem to me to be a little too detailed; a step back might help the essay's perspective to improve. You are discussing one of the primary modes of "privacy pollution," that is, the environmental effect degrading the privacy not of the "subject" who uses services to share or communicate information, but rather of the subject's family, intimates, friends, and so on whose interests are adversely affected by individual choices. As you say, one of the most frequent outcomes is that people poison their children, as they did when they smoked cigarettes. The fact that they were poisoning their children helped them to stop smoking, in many cases.

Perhaps it would make less sense to ask, therefore, whether one's children are occasionally appearing in other peoples' photos than whether one's family calendar is on line, one's own email is being data-mined, etc. If a child has a right to a clean data environment, as you point out, that will be determined primarily by the behavior of the surrounding adults. French law is very good at creating meaningless regulations: obviously one will not improve the environment around children by claiming readiness to impose absurd fines on parents in the event of unimaginable litigation that will be defeated by inter-familial immunities anyway. So what would really improve the essay would be some new ideas about how to encourage parents not to pollute their children's privacy environment. It will take education, as the dangers of second-hand smoke needed to be taught to parents in order to encourage them to quit. Perhaps you can help show us all how.


Webs Webs

r2 - 03 Dec 2017 - 20:55:14 - EbenMoglen
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