Soros – happy with an unequal playing field

Many people, including me, admire much of the work of the Soros Foundation and in particular the financial support they give to their Open Society Foundation (OSF) as well as lots of individual organizations that are funded through it.  Indeed it was through the work of two such bodies I came up close and personal with the consequences of Soros.

The organizations in question were the European Digital Rights Initiative (EDRI) based in Brussels and one of their close associates the Open Rights Group (ORG) based here in London. Both receive financial support from Soros.

I have no major complaints about either of these bodies. I am glad they exist and I often find myself agreeing with different positions which they advocate. But equally I am clear that when it comes to questions of children’s rights in the digital environment they are not the first places I would look to for sage counsel.

Yet both organizations chose to intervene in a major way on an issue which was of very direct concern to children’s rights on the internet.  A couple of years ago they  mounted a campaign over the European Commission’s proposal to make it mandatory to block access to web sites known to contain child abuse images. The Commission lost. In the end EU Member States were merely given an option to block such sites.

I do not intend to reopen the whole argument about blocking but what struck me in the course of the debate was how well organized and resourced our opponents were as compared with the  great majority of the children’s organizations that were trying to intervene and make their points. No complaints about that either but when I saw ORG and EDRI were receiving financial support from Soros I thought I would approach OSF to see if they would consider funding an initiative that would help put an alternative point of view e.g. by prioritising children’s rights in cyberspace

At first I found it very difficult to make a connection with the relevant person in the appropriate bit of the Soros empire but eventually a friend of mine casually mentioned that he knew various people there and I asked if he could introduce me. He did.

Long story short, I was offered a meeting in June which I accepted. The only point that was not resolved in our correspondence was where we would meet. On the morning of the appointed day I dropped Soros a further email to ask for confirmation of the place (I assumed their offices). I got a reply within minutes saying I had misunderstood (I hadn’t) and that no meeting had been arranged (it had).

My correspondent then told me that that day in June  was now impossible but maybe they could fit me in in August? In the meantime, Soros told me that if I wanted to talk about blocking web sites I should speak to EDRI or ORG. No irony was apparently intended

As a matter of fact, in asking Soros for a meeting I had made no mention of web blocking. I said the following

I work with children’s organizations and have an interest in how we reconcile the openness of the internet with the need to protect children.

I am not saying Soros had necessarily jumped the gun – most certainly the issue of web blocking was a trigger for my approach – but it was not the only one and anyway I hadn’t mentioned it at this point.  There is a much bigger picture. They might at least have done me the courtesy of hearing me out.

Risibly and gratuitously, making matters worse not better,  I was then  told Soros itself took no position on web blocking. They “rather let our grantees speak” But the OSF then somewhat spoilt that angle when their correspondent added

As I understand it, web blocking would not be the solution to help get the children out of situations of abuse and make the images unreachable. They need to be taken down through law enforcement coordination. 

This shows how pitifully little Soros understands about the issues involved, but there you go.  Anyway, as I said I was offered a date in August but I was also told:

We would not be in a position to fund children’s rights groups but would hope (other) funders would (help) with this type of advocacy.

Passing the buck? Refusing to accept responsibility for what their money is doing?

My concluding words therefore were:

So are you saying there is no point in my coming to see you in August because it is clear the Open Society Initiative cannot consider funding the type of work I have alluded to? 

The reply was

It would be a big departure from our strategy (i.e. we are funding digital rights advocacy groups around the world). So the answer is that I do not think we’d be able to fund the groups you are thinking about. I’d recommend (you) try (someone else).

So there we have it. The OSF are content to fund interventions which run counter to children’s interests and  they  just hope someone else will pick up the tab when it comes to ensuring there is a balanced debate. Very unimpressive.

About John Carr

John Carr is a member of the Executive Board of the UK Council on Child Internet Safety, the British Government's principal advisory body for online safety and security for children and young people. In the summer of 2013 he was appointed as an adviser to Bangkok-based ECPAT International. Amongst other things John is or has been a Senior Expert Adviser to the United Nations, ITU, the European Union, a member of the Executive Board of the European NGO Alliance for Child Safety Online, Secretary of the UK's Children's Charities' Coalition on Internet Safety. John has advised many of the world's largest internet companies on online child safety. In June, 2012, John was a appointed a Visiting Senior Fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science. More: http://johncarrcv.blogspot.com
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