Andrew Keen on New Media

Telling children what to do is not the best way to protect them
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The Independent Online

Let me be unfashionably authoritative and award grades for the Byron Review's Safer Children in a Digital World report. It gets an A+ for its schmooze, an A- for its wisdom about video gaming, a B+/C- on its understanding of the internet and a D for its inappropriate title.

The 200-page Government-commissioned report, the UK's first national strategy document on child safety in the digital age, certainly excels in complimenting every constituency of the new media universe.

Its eponymous chief schmoozer, Dr Tanya Byron, best known for being the resident shrink on BBC3's Little Angels, is in the personal growth business, her thing being "listening to" and "empowering" kids. Describing herself as a "consultant clinical psychologist", her report is a masterpiece of new age schmooze – telling parents, politicians, entrepreneurs and children exactly what they all want to hear about their intrinsic moral decency and good intentions.

There don't seem to be any real bad guys in the report – not even YouTube, with its uncensored videos of gang rapes. No wonder the report has been such a marketing hit, getting the enthusiastic thumbs up both from prudish Gordon Brown and from more relaxed authors of violent video games.

In spite of its happy-talk, the report does grapple with the changing balance of power between children and adults in today's digital media world. Byron's heart is certainly in the right place. Her emphasis on personal responsibility for parents isn't wrong – even if it appears to me, as a parent of a technology-infatuated pre-adolescent, to be the most self-evident common sense.

I also agree with the report's conclusion that a classification system of video games for kids needs to be established, although I have to admit that I found its treatment of the acronym soup of UK and European rating standards (BBFC, Pegi etc etc) to be mind-numbingly granular.

So far, so good. But electronic video games are old-fashioned media, created by professional experts. This kind of content is easy – child's play – for parents or teachers to control. But what happens when the adults evacuate the media business – as they are doing in the Web 2.0 economy – and leave it to the kids to create and distribute their own user-generated content?

Byron's heart might be in the right place, but her mind is dangerously bifurcated about the value of a media increasingly dominated by children (thus my own bipolar B+/C- grade on her understanding of the internet).

She half admits this herself, describing kids as the natives and the grown-ups as the immigrants in the new digital world. And her report recognises the revolutionary nature of the self-broadcasting Web 2.0 media – with its implicit rejection of the authority of grown-ups. But then Byron shrinks back from the logic of her own observations and focuses instead on a three-year e-plan for implementing bureaucratic solutions from above.

The Byron report is half Lord Reith and half Abbie Hoffman, founder of the Yippie youth rebellion movement in the Sixties. That adds up to a whole lot of confusion. It is a traditional Government policy document dressed up in the Web 2.0 language of radical empowerment and personal democracy.

Byron wants us, as power-sharing grown-ups, to listen and listen to the kids and then – as authoritative parents, teachers and politicians – to re-establish our control over media and authoritatively set policy. That's why Gordon Brown – the quintessential analogue top-down expert – is so keen on the Byron report, mistakenly thinking that Britain can become the global leader in taming the untamable and pioneering policy in an essentially ungovernable digital universe.

The reality is that today's internet could have been invented by William Golding. It's the little angels who are running the show now. And they don't need no digital education from either Brown or Byron.

What's really missing from the report is a focus on seriousness. Protecting children is all very well, but, as Byron acknowledges, we tend to be overly paranoid about children's physical safety both on- and offline.

The real problem with today's digital universe is making children wiser about the "information" that they are consuming in the unfiltered Web 2.0 media. I wish Byron had entitled her report "Wiser Children in a Digital Age". That would have been a much smarter way of beginning a genuinely serious national dialogue about children and new technology.

The Byron report was ignored by the American media. One reason for this, of course, is that Americans have no interest in the outside world. But another explanation is that Americans have given up on the idea of the government making the internet safer for children. They leave that to the free market. Maybe they are right.

The same week that Byron dumped her 200-page report on to an innocent British public, a small Californian start-up called KidZui launched a free-market solution to the problem of children's safety on the internet.

Over the last three years, Kidzui has paid 200 school teachers to trawl the web to find 500,000 websites that are child-friendly. Then KidZui turned this human wisdom into software, creating a subscription-based service (at $9.95 a month or $99.95 a year) that restricts children's access to the internet to only these websites.

The service offers a lot more too, including innovative ways for kids to search within the KidZui software for information that interests them. This free-market alternative to Byron's 200-page, three-year digital plan might make the consultant clinical psychologist herself redundant. She can go back to appearing on TV and we – for $9.95 a month – can stop worrying about our own little angels getting corrupted by all that internet filth.

The Byron review was, of course, partly sponsored by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. Last week, a Commons Select Committee of this very same department met to investigate the internet, children and censorship.

The committee was interviewing Kent Walker, the general counsel of Google, the Silicon Valley search engine that now owns the video-sharing website YouTube. The politicians wanted to know why YouTube had broadcast a three-minute video showing a 25-year-old mother being gang-raped by some teenage boys.

Walker explained that it was "impractical" to vet every video uploaded onto the website.

Impractical, eh, Mr Walker? Just as KidZui hired 200 teachers to vet child-friendly websites, so the massively profitable Google/YouTube could afford to hire 2,000 full-time gatekeepers to filter illegal or inappropriate content. The publicly traded company chooses not to, of course, because of the impact on its bottom line.

Ah, the free market – simultaneously the best and worst solution to making children safer and wiser in the digital world.