Baroness Beeban Kidron

Baroness Beeban Kidron describes the urgent need for a changed discourse on children’s rights, freedoms, security and privacy online.

The discourse about children and the digital world is plagued by false binaries. They must pay for responsible corporate behaviour with their freedom, for access with their privacy, for personal security with 24/7 surveillance, and for services with their attention. These binaries protect the business interests of the data-driven companies of Silicon Valley, but they do not adequately meet the needs of children and young people.

The digital world was not anticipated as a place in which childhood in all its complexity would be played out. Yet for a 21st-century child, it mediates every part of their experience: from the most public to the most intimate. Far from providing children and young people with a welcoming and respectful environment, their digital world is high on adult content, low on protections and, in many instances, hides behind the pretence that children are not there at all.

The idea for this volume was born over lunch with someone from Facebook, who suddenly turned to me and said, “you really are the woman who wants to turn off the lights at Christmas.” I was horrified: was the cumulative result of everything that I was fighting for going to extinguish the joy of the one billion children and young people online?

Of course, the digital holds within it the promise of unimaginable benefits. Who in their right mind would want to turn the lights off on that? Not me. But what of those one billion kids? Do the protections and privileges of childhood need to be formally integrated into the digital world? Should we demand greater responsibility and transparency from those building the technology itself? Are we all going to have to give up some freedom to give children and young people more protection? Does one person’s freedom of expression trump the silencing of another person or group of people? Has the idea of freedom itself been undermined by practices of data extraction and digital nudging? What constitutes an appropriate balance of freedom, security (both individual and national) and privacy for a 21st-century child?

The authors of the essays that make up this volume start to answer some of these questions from multiple perspectives. They are loosely divided into four chapters: Freedom, Security, Privacy and the Future of Childhood; although many could have been in more than one chapter. Between them, they offer a much more sophisticated conversation than the public conversation we are currently having. The authors, all experts in their fields and writing in personal capacities, focus on issues of their choosing and, whatever their differences, they overwhelmingly deliver the message that we have failed to properly design a digital world for children.

Lawyers Susie Alegre and Baroness Helena Kennedy QC, and Executive Director of UNICEF, Henrietta H Fore, argue that children have existing rights and that the digital is a part of, not separate from, all other environments. Susie defends a “child’s right to dream” and that freedom of thought represents their “budding inner life.” Children and young people’s inability to realise rights that allow them control over their reputation and personal information concerns New Zealand’s Privacy Commissioner, John Edwards.

In her uplifting essay, Taiwan’s Digital Minister Audrey Tang (herself one of the world’s youngest government ministers) chronicles the contribution of empowered young people to the democratic agenda, demonstrating what access can mean; whilst Farida Shaheed, former UN Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights, highlights cultural and language barriers which prevent millions of children and young people from truly participating in the digital space. In her compelling essay, she points out that two-thirds of the world’s population live in Asia, but that only one-quarter of internet communication is in Asian languages: “take out Mandarin and that drops to a shocking 7%.” Meanwhile Dr Towela Nyirenda-Jere, one of Malawi’s first female engineers, outlines the specific experiences and hopes of children and young people already online in Africa.

Dr Ing Konstantinos Karachalios, Managing Director of the IEEE Standards Association, takes us back in time to show us the long tail of what is being undermined or challenged (take your pick) by the new world order. Unsurprisingly for an engineer, he has a schema to put things right. Meanwhile, Kade Crockford, Director of the Technology for Liberty Program at the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, considers history, knowledge, power and authority, cautioning that we have allowed technology into the lives of young people without first asking some fundamental questions. “What does Alexa say when a child asks why Daddy hurts Mommy?”, Kade demands to know. Director of Digital Civility at Roblox, Laura Higgins, takes a different tack, remarking on the media’s ‘sensationalist’ portrayal of the online space, which she fears demonises the digital and diminishes the ability of children to play freely.

In his very moving essay, Uri Sadeh, who works on the frontline of child online protection at Interpol (like all our authors, writing in a personal capacity), outlines the tragic way in which children have become collateral damage as governments and businesses fail to put their safety above all other considerations. Similarly defiant are Dr Ian Levy and Jānis Sārts, of the UK National Cyber Security Centre and NATO respectively. Jānis argues that “not everything should be allowed” and Ian calls for “safe software” that embodies (and prevents) both hazards and harms, as is standard practice in any other area of life. Professor Hany Farid, the co-developer of photoDNA, and John Carr OBE, one of the world’s leading authorities on children’s protection online, express deep frustration that both industry and civil governments’ inaction is and was “never one of technological limitation”, but merely one of corporate and political will.

H.E. Dr Amani Abou-Zeid, the Commissioner for Infrastructure and Energy at the African Union, cites issues specific to Africa (although familiar to all territories) when she says that we must strengthen online security, so that children and young people can access the digital environment safely. Equally significant, Adrian Lovett, President and CEO of the World Wide Web Foundation (the organisation that houses the hopes and dreams of Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web), feels that the utopian vision of the internet has not yet been realised. He points to the Web Foundation’s Contract for the Web and sets out nine principles for a child-friendly internet.

Four young people have their say: three from RX Radio in South Africa feel that parents are undereducated and young people vastly under protected, while Francesca Fajardo, who took part in 5Rights’ Data Literacy workshops, writes an excoriating essay which should be compulsory reading for all policymakers and tech titans. She explores how current data practices stigmatise users who may be disabled, LGBTQ+, BAME… Her list is long, and she concludes that “poor ethics are trumping decency”.

In the balance of freedom, security and privacy, many authors stand squarely behind a child’s need for privacy. Academics Professor Sonia Livingstone OBE and Professor Dr Eva Lievens make eloquent arguments that seek to “deresponsibilitise” children and parents, placing the burden of privacy directly onto commercial companies who develop products and services. Playwright James Graham OBE, author of the brilliant play Privacy, argues that the psycho-logical and emotional effects of living in a digital environment are rarely discussed, but significantly affect the way that children and young people develop. Each of these essays put forward the idea that freedom for a child cannot exist unless and until the digital world can be accessed without complex and conflicting pressures and surveillance.

Many made practical suggestions for a better future, including 5Rights’ Policy Lead Jay Harman, who argues passionately that we must recalibrate our idea of the digital to put children at the centre of its design and development. Amandeep Singh Gill, former Executive Director of the UN Secretary General’s High-Level Panel on Digital Cooperation, Elettra Ronchi, Andras Molnar and Lisa Robinson from the OECD’s Division for Digital Economy Policy, Kathryn Montgomery and Jeff Chester from the Center for Digital Democracy, and Amy Shepherd, writing on behalf of Open Rights Group, an organisation focusing on freedom of expression and speech online, all considered routes that would allow under 18s to participate in a digital world that respects and upholds their privacy, security and freedom – including their freedom to be a child.

The strength of this volume is less that the authors came to a consensus about everything, than that they came to a consensus about one thing. This generation of children are a “forgotten mass” upon whom we have allowed a social experiment at an unimaginable scale. An experiment in which we have failed to remember that childhood is the time in which everything you do, see, feel and imagine contributes to your makeup as an adult. It is a volume which offers a debate on issues that are foundational to the future of children and young people across the globe, and therefore future itself.

This book of essays would not have been possible without the generosity of its authors, who busy already, gave much time and thought to their essays. The work of 5Rights Foundation is made possible by the dedication of a small group of brilliant colleagues and a handful of enlightened funders – thank you. For this volume, we are particularly indebted to Poppy Wood and Jessica Smith, and as ever, to the hundreds of children and young people who inform what we do.

For myself, I am reassured. To demand a better deal for children and young people is not a killjoy putting out the lights at Christmas. It is switching on the lights, so that the forgotten mass can see where they are going.

Baroness Beeban Kidron OBE

Baroness Beeban Kidron OBE is an English film director, producer, children's rights campaigner and member of the UK House of Lords. She is the Founder and Chair of 5Rights Foundation; a thought leader in wherever children interact with the digital world, and a frequent speaker on data protection, AI and how childhood could and should be better supported in the 21st Century. In 2012 she was appointed to the House of Lords, where she sits as a Crossbench Peer and is a member of the Democracy and Digital Technology Committee. She is a member of the UNESCO Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development and the Global Council on Extended Intelligence.