June 23, 2006 at 6:00 AM ET
Google video, YouTube and other online video sites host violent clips of children lighting themselves on fire and doing other dangerous, stupid things. MySpace is loaded with provocative photos of children and has become a playground for pedophiles. I think all these companies should be doing more to protect children, and I said so in two columns this week. Hundreds of readers have chastised me, saying that parents -- not companies -- are responsible for keeping their kids safe.
They're right. And I'm right.
We live in a world of black-and-white, this-or-that, dualistic conversations, and I think that causes more harm than good. Both parents and corporations can be held responsible for what's going on here. While I agree with almost every comment readers made urging greater parental responsibility and personal responsibility to deal with these problems, these are not mutually exclusive with corporate responsibility.
I run into this personal accountability deflection tactic often when I write about the unseemly ways of credit card companies. Predatory lending practices helped push 2 million Americans into personal bankruptcy last year, an outrageous number that is far higher than any other developed nation. Thanks to industry marketing and tradition, many non-debtors react to this devastating truth by saying something like, "No one holds a gun to their heads to buy new clothes with a credit card." Credit card companies just provide a service; and if people overspend, it's their fault, they argue.
And that's true. But there is an additional truth. Some companies purposefully pump more credit at people as their credit file shows high debt. Low-credit-score customers pay higher interest rates, so they're valuable, if risky, customers. Others lenders market heavily to college students, knowing the default rate will be high. These credit card companies share the blame for the bankruptcy problem. Blaming them is not the same as exonerating the students or the high-debt consumers.
The tobacco companies tried this technique too: "We don't force people to smoke, we just make the cigarettes." We know how that went.
Plenty of blame
As is almost always the case, there is plenty of blame to go around. Blame for people, blame for companies.
And so it is with online safety. You have to wonder where parents are when children are sticking fireworks in their behinds and lighting them. You have to wonder where parents are when a child buys a plane ticket to fly half-way across the world to see a man she met on MySpace.
But that doesn't exonerate Google, MySpace or any other Internet firm for the role it may have played in helping those things happen. These companies know this. None of them argues with absolutes; none of them says that anything goes on their sites, that total Internet freedom is a good thing. They have filters; they have people who remove illegal material and potentially dangerous material. None of them has any desire to be a part of a child getting hurt.
But when predictable bad things happen on your property, you are partly to blame. You don't get to build a rickety playground on your property, invite children in and then wipe your hands clean if the swing breaks and a child gets hurt -- even if you put up a sign that says "Play at your own risk."
It's clear from content easily discoverable on these Web sites that each needs to do more to keep kids safe. And so do parents. And so do kids. Now is not a time for absolute arguments on any side of this.
Online child safety expert Parry Aftab likes to say attacking this problem actually requires a five-pronged approach:
1) Companies like MySpace have to know what they're really getting into when they open their doors to kids. They need mature risk-management plans and compliance strategies, and they need to know the kind of liabilities they might incur if things go wrong.
2) Parents need to understand new technologies. And even more important, they need to say "no" to their kids sometimes.
3) Kids have to get involved in keeping one another safe, since often they are the experts.
4) Law enforcement has to have a good relationship with Web sites and be ready to act quickly when necessary.
5) Schools have to help educate kids on the safe use of technology, and teachers have to be on the lookout for signs that something is wrong.
The Red Tape Chronicles often focuses heavily on No. 1. Companies should both make money and do the right thing. Sometimes, the pressure of one outweighs the honor required to do the other, and journalists can help reset the balance. But Red Tape readers this week were correct to point out that good parenting is even more important than good corporate citizenship as a tool to keep kids safe.
My friend Will Femia, who blogs over at "Clicked," offered up another reason that this issue may have resonated with so many readers. It can be argued that the Golden Age of the Internet is drawing to a close, a point that John Dvorak at PC Mag recently made quite well. With the failure of Net Neutrality, we will soon have a two-tiered, class-structured Internet. E-mail is almost unusable and some people won't accept notes from strangers anymore. Free content is endangered, and free music largely killed. The special chaos that liberated so many to express themselves, that wrested publishing power from traditional media, is clearly under siege. Any suggestion that sounds like censorship is bound to be met -- and should be met -- with skepticism.
Will calls this the "There goes the neighborhood" phenomenon. And I think it's something to be seriously worried about.
Once again, I don't believe this is an either-or situation. I believe we can find ways to make kids safer without destroying the Internet.
But there is another thing I believe: Too many kids are getting hurt today, and we have to do a better job keeping them safe. All of us.
And now, as is the policy here at the Red Tape Chronicles thanks to tech editor Michael Wann, you have the last word.