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Protection of minors online: Trust is more effective than technical (pseudo) solutions

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Protection of minors online: Trust is more effective than technical (pseudo) solutions

The year is 1998. I’m twelve and sitting in my father’s study. I have just plugged in the modem because I have an appointment to chat with friends. At exactly 6:00 p.m. I enter the fm4 chat as julchen.k. I can still see the design in front of me today: black background, colorful nicknames. My friends rebi86 and blueberry55 join us. Sometimes it happens that someone we don’t know appears in our room. These moments are scary and exciting at the same time. On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog. Sometimes we chat a bit with the stranger or close the room quickly. We never share real names or pictures. As well as? Webcam on a CRT monitor? None.

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Fast forward 25 years and there is a term for what happened to us back then: cybergrooming. The term refers to interactions in which adults approach minors on the Internet. In 2022, a quarter of all children and young people said they had experienced cybergrooming. Ascending trend. This proportion increases as young people get older. The children and young people sit in the children’s room with their own devices. They text, play computer games, upload videos to social media platforms. The Internet is their home. But what kind of home is this where dangers supposedly lurk around every corner?

(Bild:

Oliver Ajkovic

)

Julia Kloiber works on fair and inclusive digital futures as co-founder of the feminist organization Superrr Lab. She regularly publishes her column in the print edition of MIT Technology Review.

When I talk to parent friends, many of them are overwhelmed. Because they are overwhelmed, some people want hard technical solutions. Politics addresses this. A controversial online security law was passed in the UK in October. The law stipulates that websites with content that is potentially harmful to minors must check the age of visitors: technical age verification. In reality, this means a network in which you constantly have to identify yourself. This is intended to protect children and young people. Age verification can be done via ID or biometric data such as facial scans.

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Technical age verification is a solution that only appears efficient and attractive to a very romantic view. The most obvious argument against this is that every technical solution can be circumvented. If age verification only applies within national borders and is based on IP addresses, a banal VPN is sufficient. ID checks also normalize the behavior of constantly having to verify oneself to the state. In short, surveillance is normalized. With every technical solution now, ecosystems of the future are manifested.

And children and young people know surveillance all too well. Hardly a child in my circle of friends is not tracked by their parents via smartphone or smartwatch. A friend who opposes tracking calls it the digital umbilical cord. The construction of protective spaces for children and young people must not be based on comprehensive surveillance technologies, because automation cannot replace care. Caring means that parents actively deal with the issue of cybergrooming with their children and negotiate together and consider which measures make sense.

Because trust and open communication are more effective than any technical (pseudo) solution. At the same time, politicians need to hold companies more accountable and develop more effective and simpler parental control approaches. In other words, you have to think about security from the child’s end device.

I grew up with a free and open internet. And I don’t want to miss this freedom for a second. I will defend it, even if it means writing columns about tech solutionism for the rest of my life. With this in mind: Stay tuned for more!

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