In most countries – the UK included – when it comes to children every decent human being instinctively tries to do the right thing because, well,they’re children.  Moreover we don’t discriminate between children. Our innate sense of fairness extends to every single child. It’s not a matter of numbers.

Now I am not naïve. I fully understand why it is,  notwithstanding any universalist language, institutions  tend to focus on or prioritise  issues which affect larger groups. One hopes that eventually they will get round to dealing with everyone but at any rate to begin with numbers  plainly matter.

Unbelievably (and perhaps I am being  too charitable here) several key internet institutions are  still in the “beginning with” phase. However, last week a report came out which should change that forever and also establish an urgent, empirically-based call to action at least in respect of the position of children as internet users.

One in Three: Internet Governance and Children’s Rights in my view is a work of the utmost importance. I count myself lucky to have been asked to be a co-author but the bulk of the credit for the research and the intellectual leadership  must go to Professor Sonia Livingstone of the LSE and Jasmina Byrne of UNICEF’s global research centre, Innocenti plus the host of researchers around the world who rallied to their banner and helped shape the final output, published by Chatham House and the Global Commission on Internet Governance.

Developed and developing worlds

In many of the countries of the developed world we have known for some time exactly how many legal minors are internet users . We have known this because the data are reliably collected, analysed and regularly published. In the UK it is just over 1 in 5 of all internet users and in the EU as a whole it is just under 1 in 5. But what about further afield? The picture is very patchy , or it was until now. 1 in 3 is a peer reviewed report  which sets out its methodology and concludes, as the title suggests, that one in three of all internet users on the planet are under the age of 18. In parts of the developing world this rises to almost one in two.

No need for anecdotes

Of course for some time we have pretty much known, maybe intuitively or anecdotally that minors have a huge presence online but even so  I think confirmation of these proportions will come as something of  a surprise to lots of actors on the internet stage. And let’s not forget that in the internet space  there is a constant demand for  and a premium placed on “evidence based policy-making”. Well now we have the evidence. Big time.

A place for children

Thus, while  there is no question the internet’s achievements are spectacular, that it has changed the world’s economy, has changed the way we do politics and hold governments to account,  made it possible for us to find cheap flights and get our groceries delivered it is also a major medium for children. Policy makers  and companies need to fix that prosaic but profound fact firmly in their minds whenever they talk about the future of the internet or its governance.

Just think: in any other area of human activity where it was known and accepted that one in three of all participants were legal minors the environment would be designed with that in mind. Yet the internet is not.

Every publisher of online content or online service provider needs to reflect on the fact that what they are about to do – publish or provide – is going into a space where 1 in 3 of everyone who might confront it is a minor.  Kids are everywhere. Simply shifting the responsibility  for dealing with the consequences of this to parents or teachers (or law enforcement for that matter) is close to being a wilful evasion when we know that in a great many parts of the world that is a million miles away from being realistic in any meaningful way.

As Sonia Livingstone puts it

I find it astonishing how often policymakers debate internet governance as if all users were adults or, failing that, carefully protected by informed parents. This report argues against an age-generic or age-blind approach to internet provision and governance, drawing on evidence that a substantial minority of internet users are minors and that many encounter risk unsupported.

It’s all about rights

Minors share all of the human rights enjoyed by adults but in addition they have a layer of additional rights which are unique to them. Take education as an example. I think we are very nearly at the point where ready and convenient access to the internet will be seen as being integral to and inseparable from  it. That’s a big conceptual leap forward but the plain fact is that already, today, a child without internet access is a child at a disadvantage, measured either in relation to their peers in their own country or internationally. And a country with too many children suffering from such a disadvantage is a country that is handicapped in ways which will have long term consequences for every one of its citizens.

But access must go hand in hand with improved digital literacy and connect with the wider range of children’s rights. As my colleague Jasmina Byrne put it

Implementation of child rights in the digital age requires not only adherence to human rights and values, but also empowerment and participation of child users in ways which foster their creativity, innovation and societal engagement.”



Posted in Default settings, Internet governance, Regulation, Self-regulation

Not so very different

It is not  often someone who works in the field of online child safety in this cold, wet corner of Europe gets the opportunity to hear from and participate in a discussion with  their counterparts  in countries such as Djibouti, Mauritania, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Algeria. Such was my good fortune earlier this week when I attended a hugely impressive gathering  in Cairo.

The conference was organized by the Egyptian Ministry of Communications and Information Technology  in conjunction with the  ITU’s Regional Office.

We heard about a genuinely new idea (or at any rate new to me) which had been developed by some geeky  youngsters – clearly future millionaires all of them – to help in the fight against bullying but otherwise what struck me very forcibly was just how similar the issues were that each of the  different countries’ representatives aired.

We happened to be in Cairo but if you closed your eyes and listened only to the words  we could just as easily have been in Colchester, Cardiff, Coleraine  or Clydebank , or  Cannes,  Cologne or Cincinnati for that matter.

There was a widespread acknowledgement of the huge advantages which the internet had brought to the world in general and to children and young people in particular but there was also the familiar anxiety about how children’s natural curiosity and innocence could lead them into situations online with which many were ill-equipped to deal.

How do we help parents understand the internet better so they, in turn,  can  help their own children? How do we help teachers get up to speed and stay up? How do we mobilize the political will and resources  to make sure we reach every child  and every school not just those who live in urban areas or  in better off neighbourhoods?  How do we mobilize the political will and resources  to make sure law enforcement have the right tools? What kind of technical measures are available to assist with the project and how well do they work? What can we reasonably expect companies to do voluntarily and what part does regulation play?

Now to be sure there are differences between countries and mostly these can be explained by reference to  local factors. Moreover  the differences can illuminate larger truths  and add depth to our wider understanding – which is why it is important to continue to research and document them  – but typically the differences are not measured by orders of magnitude. As levels of internet usage  and connectivity speeds increase in a country so the same broad patterns seem to emerge everywhere on the planet.

Is this so surprising? Not really.    But it is worth reminding ourselves of that fact from time to time.

It is worth reminding ourselves not  just for its own sake but also because  therein is a stark warning. In the UK and most of the rest of the developed world we know how poorly we have coped with some of the challenges the internet has thrown up. Yet we have a quite well developed infrastructure in terms of law enforcement, and educational and social services systems. Many countries in the developing world do not and the risk, therefore, is obvious. And very worrying.




Posted in Internet governance, Regulation, Self-regulation | 1 Comment

Back to School

As the new school year gets underway Internet Matters has just published its latest safety advice. It’s aimed primarily at parents but I am sure lots of  teachers and many children will find all or parts of it very useful.

As you would expect, an important part of the guide takes you through what you can do at home using the parental controls that  the big four ISPs provide to their UK customers. There are links to some wonderful, easy to understand videos.

However, there is also a great section on games consoles, smartphones, apps and those ubiquitous “social networks”

Individual guides are also provided  to explain what you can do on a range of different platforms Although at first glance you might think it will only cover You Tube and Google, in fact if you click on the link there’s a lot more besides, including all the major games consoles, iTunes, and BBC iPlayer.

Usefully there  are in addition specific sections on  Instagram,   Whatsapp and Snapchat.

Interesting and weird statistics

Internet Matters did a little bit of number crunching. 

So now we know, for example, that Newcastle is the smartphone capital of Britain where a whopping 90.5% of 8-11  year olds  own one. The national percentage is  65%, by the way, so there is obviously something in the waters of the Tyne that is spurring them on. I’m embarrassed to say that my home town, Leeds, came near the bottom (46.2%) while otherwise generally funky Brighton was the actual bottom at 40%.

Less easy to explain is why, while 23% of parents “let” their children take a smartphone to school, apparently 80% of them nevertheless think smartphones should be banned from the playground. Clearly they either believe their little cherubs  will dutifully leave handsets in their back packs, desks or lockers or they are willing to allow teachers to get into frisking or patrolling the playground with either a metal detector or something that will pinpoint radio wave transmissions. Probably both.

Posted in Regulation, Self-regulation

On the meaning of “consensus”

There are probably fewer than three people on the entire planet who read the whole of the output of the various online groups that address issues of internet governance. They are all/both academics with a professional interest.

I dip in and out as different topics flare up. I recently dipped into a discussion on the meaning of consensus in the context of ICANN’s  decision-making processes. The writer who caught my eye on this occasion was Milton Mueller. Here is my favourite, slightly edited extract

.….after 18 years….. I have less and less an idea what “consensus” means (within ICANN). The term has been abused so frequently…..I wince every time I hear it. I know what it used to mean – no objection from any engaged party (Quaker consensus). But neither ICANN nor…..anyone except perhaps Quakers actually operate that way.

Of late it seems it has become the fashion in ICANN (and other internet governance quarters) not to refer to a consensus because in truth there never is one. Instead we hear internet governance leaders refer to a rough consensus.  What does Milton make of that?

So  (now) we’re down to “rough consensus” or what I prefer to call “declared consensus” which means in essence that some Working Group chair gets to decide which people/opinions he or she is going to ignore….. 

Elsewhere Milton implies that simply voting isn’t a noticeably superior way of determining matters within ICANN, not least because of the way the weighted voting system itself has been constructed.

Ah well. What can I say? Once Alice followed the rabbit down the hole…..





Posted in Internet governance, Regulation, Self-regulation

Mobile phones as electronic tags for victims of domestic abuse

Interesting release by the excellent Jennifer Perry at the Digital Safety Trust.  Although the focus is on domestic abuse – an extremely important issue in its own right –  it has obvious implications for other types of abusive behaviour

Domestic abuse has gone digital. Mobiles are a perfect tool for abusers to use today. It makes the task of monitoring, threatening, intimidating and harassing a victim so much easier, and safer for the abuser than having to do it in person”  says Jennifer Perry, CEO of the Digital-Trust.

Victims keep their mobiles close to hand, they use them for all their social media, texts and emails. It is a wealth of information for an abusive partner. It can show who their partner talks to, how long, how often. It tracks where they are right now and where they’ve been. The right app allows you to remotely read text and listen in on conversations.

This allows the victim’s mobile to become a very powerful electronic tag with their abuser as their guard. This intrusive monitoring stops victims from having any privacy, isolating them and can prevent them from getting help says Perry


Surveillance behaviour starts when the victim is still living at home. Using a mobile an abuser can:

  • set-up the phone so they have control of the phone account/master password
  • force the victim to provide access to their phone by sharing password or pin
  • read their texts or social media like Whats App
  • see who is in their contact lists
  • look at the location information that shows where they’ve been
  • put spyware or tracking app on the phone

The Digital-Trust has written easy to use step by step guides on how to secure a smartphones. There is a guide for the iPhone, Androids and Windows mobiles.

It isn’t just mobiles – technology such as spy cameras, listening devices and car trackers are becoming much more common in abuse cases.


Digital abuse is a challenge for anyone working with victims and the problem is rapidly escalating. In a survey of domestic violence victims by Women’s Aid 75% reported concerns that the police did not know how best to respond to online abuse or harassment.





Posted in Location, Mobile phones, Privacy, Regulation, Self-regulation, Uncategorized

Starting from scratch – would we reinvent ICANN?

If we were starting over – with all the benefits of hindsight – do you think we would recreate or reinvent ICANN? I don’t.

Crucially what we would not do is allow the key technical functions which ICANN performs to become enmeshed  or intertwined with the economic interests of Registrars and Registries. The public interest – actually almost anybody else’s interests – and the interests of Registrars and Registries do not always coincide. And it shows. The Registrars’ and Registries’ agendas are prioritised. Everything else takes second or third place.

Paying the piper, calling the tune

When I looked at this previously, between them the Registrars and Registries provided 94.3% of ICANN’s total revenues.  ICANN’s policy-making and voting systems recognise and entrench their paymasters’ ability to call the tune and allow them to disregard or minimise anyone else’s plaintiff cries for relief or help.

When is a contract not a contract? When ICANN says so

ICANN constructed a set of rules  by which it said the domain name system would be governed.  However, it then announced to the rest of the world that  in many vital respects it is everybody else’s responsibility to make the rules stick. Not theirs.

So ICANN went through a series of elaborate processes to devise their rules. They clothed themselves with words like agreements and contracts but now say they won’t enforce major aspects of them.  Unbelieveable.

How can I say  all this? Actually I don’t have to.  ICANN said it themselves, or rather someone called Allen Grogan, ICANN’s Chief Contract Compliance Officer did in his recent blog entitled ICANN Is Not the Internet Content Police.  Fadi Chehadé, ICANN’s CEO, has also been saying pretty much the same thing for a while.

Here is the opening salvo.

ICANN is not a global regulator of Internet content, nor should (our) 2013 Registry Accreditation Agreement (RAA) be interpreted in such a way as to put us in that role….

A linguistic sleight of hand?

ICANN seems to have managed a linguistic sleight of hand by redefining the meaning of the word content to cover  anything and everything that happens on a web site or is associated with it. This includes what the rest of us would call activity.

Grogan goes on to say

Institutions already exist that have political legitimacy and are charged with interpreting and enforcing laws and regulations around the world. These institutions, including law enforcement (local and national police agencies as well as intergovernmental organizations like Interpol), regulatory agencies and judicial systems, have the expertise, experience and legitimacy to police illegal activity and to address difficult questions such as jurisdiction and conflicts of law. In most countries, these institutions also offer procedural due process and mechanisms for appeal and are experienced in addressing difficult issues such as the proportionality of remedies. If content is to be policed, the burden is on these institutions, and not ICANN, to undertake such regulation.

I can see what Grogan is driving at but the problem is ICANN’s rules have become so complex, time-consuming and expensive to follow that, when wedded to the enormous volumes  of complaints or issues being generated by those same rules – think phishing, fake pharmaceuticals, spam, child abuse images – for practical purposes the bodies ICANN hoped would enforce their rules actually can’t or they can do so in only a hit and miss way which goes nowhere near meeting the total need.

How to fix it?

More to the point it goes without saying that most of what needs to be done to ameliorate the situation would involve Registrars and Registries taking a more active role in ensuring that registrants do what they are supposed to do and don’t do what they’re not. It’s hard to make a buck out of this kind of thing.

ICANN has thus, in effect, presided over and in many ways created a constant buzz of unlawfulness and frustration.  Yes we are so extremely grateful for  the good bits  but in reality ICANN has also created a platform for crooks. Meanwhile in the name of increasing competition  more and more domain names are made available (more cash for you know who) and a recent report suggests this is simply leading to increased levels of abuse. Brilliant.

Welcome to the labyrinth

To give you some idea of how these things pan out in practice you could do a lot worse than read the Open Rights Group’s correspondence complaining about the behaviour of the City of London Police’s Intellectual Property Crime Unit.

Now I am not going to argue that the police, or anyone, should have carte blanche to behave inappropriately or to trample on anyone’s legitimate interests but just take a moment to look at the hoops and steps set out in the ORG letter. The whole edifice which ICANN has constructed is turning into a nightmare – a virtual Day of the Triffids

Should we rename ICANN The Lawyers’ Benevolent Fund?

Perhaps we should rename ICANN and the heavenly bodies which are sucked into its orbit as the Lawyers’ Benevolent Fund. Meanwhile innocent people and blameless businesses continue to lose out.

People’s patience will eventually expire

Up to now to fend off critics ICANN  has been able to  hide behind its technical role and the threat of potential alternative governance models handing too much power to (ill-intentioned) states. These are not bad defensive positions but they won’t last forever. People’s patience will eventually disappear.

Sure the internet is founded on a technical layer which needs to be preserved and maintained but this technical layer has huge social, personal  and real world impacts which have to become an equally important part of the equation not constantly dismissed as “someone else’s business” or as being in some way only second order concerns. They are first order concerns for the people dying from contaminated drugs, losing their life savings or having their creative work stolen.

Do I have an answer? No. But to return to a theme I expressed in my last blog: we should all refuse to accept that the ongoing abuse of cyberspace is the inevitable price we must all pay in perpetuity for the many undoubted benefits the internet has brought us. ICANN seems to be too mired in vested interests to be capable of reforming itself. The only question in my mind is what will be the trigger event which forces the change?

In the meantime, unless and until ICANN and the rest of us can devise better ways to reduce the amount of online abuse taking place on or through non-compliant web sites no new domain names of any kind should be created.

Posted in E-commerce, ICANN, Internet governance

Italian police expose major link between online crime and Bitcoin

A couple of days ago the Italian police announced the outcome of a major operation against a number of hidden services on the darknet.  There are several interesting aspects of the reports which appeared as a result of the fuller briefing given to  a number of media outlets, as opposed to the bare bones of the Europol press release:

1. In the course of the operation the police seized 14,000 Bitcoin wallets worth about 1 million euros (£700,00 or US$ 1.1 million)

2.  There was evidence that around 170,000 different transactions had taken place through the services in question. These covered a broad range of crime: drugs was a big part of it but also on offer were  false identity papers, hacker kits, credit card codes and other stuff.  The police got into this wider set of crimes through  an  initial operation which began with looking into the distribution of child abuse images.

3. It took the Italian police two years  to complete their work and get to the point where they could arrest the site’s organizer, seize the Bitcoin wallets, close everything down and announce the results.

4. I am sure two years  was needed but one is bound to wonder about the sort of world we have allowed to be created where it takes such a long time to  deal with  something like this. How much damage might have been done while the investigative processes were being completed using undercover policing methods? What level of resources was devoted to this action and  are they sustainable?

There has to be a  better way. We should all refuse to accept that this type of outrageous abuse of cyberspace is the inevitable price we must all pay in perpetuity for the many undoubted benefits the internet has brought to the world.


Posted in Child abuse images, E-commerce, Regulation, Self-regulation