Most recent battle in the internet’s longest war
The internet has had many wars since the Netscape Navigator opened the Web to popular, global use in the mid-1990s. Internet policy wonks know all about “The War on Internet Terrorists,” “The War on Cyber Crime,” “The War on Internet Election Interference,” “The War on Internet Disinformation” and others. But a new battle emerged recently in the internet’s oldest war when Apple announced an initiative to help combat child predation by automatically examining photos taken by iPhone users. The war between activists who are trying to stop internet-based child predation and activists for strong individual privacy has been underway for 25 years and — as this latest battle shows — it has no end in sight.
Parents have successfully controlled what their children are allowed to experience since before the stone age, and as children grow into their teens, struggles between parents and children have always emerged. Among the most important reasons for this parental control — as any parent knows — has been to prevent a child from being abused or molested by an adult predator. In the physical world, the parents’ task was complex but straightforward: control the child’s physical activities and whereabouts. Even the advent of telephone and broadcasting were comparatively straightforward for parental control: telephones, radios and televisions are nationally regulated services in which users rely on fairly large, physical tools. So, trusting the licensed service providers and controlling a child’s access to the physical TV or telephone tools is manageable. Once the Navigator and the Web made global photo (later video) exchanges relatively easy, and as pocket-sized, inexpensive smartphones became the principal tool for Web users, the ground rules of physical, parental control began to change fundamentally.
Since the mid-1990s, activists and officials who seek to prevent the use of the internet for child predation — primarily by prohibiting images of child pornography and by prosecuting child predators — have sought new laws, regulations and stepped-up law enforcement, as well as cooperation and involvement from technology companies at every level.
During the decades after the introduction of the Navigator, however, it gradually became apparent that the internet offered the greatest opportunity ever devised for comprehensive, electronic surveillance of individuals. No amount of old-fashioned telephone wiretapping or occasional close circuit TV cameras could come close to the surveillance potential of the internet since, for most users, the internet follows you wherever you go. And internet-based services are made up of many different layers and components, most of which could independently be used for surveillance.
With Edward Snowden’s 2015 disclosures of U.S. Governmental internet surveillance, with the gradual revelation of the scale of user surveillance by technology companies, and with the recognition that many non-U.S. governments also have extensive internet surveillance programs, by the early 2000s protecting individual privacy on the internet became a popular, instead of an arcane, issue. Privacy activists and officials have sought new laws and regulations to protect individuals from internet surveillance … as well as cooperation and involvement from technology companies at every level.
These distinct child protection and privacy interests have repeatedly clashed, and we’re now witnessing the latest battle: “Should privacy be compromised in order to prevent child predation?” or “Should protecting children from predators be compromised in order to protect privacy?” Each side in this debate asserts that the prevalence of their own primary concerns over the other’s need not necessarily and fundamentally jeopardize the other’s interests.
So, when Apple announced that it will begin automatically examining photos created by iPhone users in order to stop child abuse by reporting suspicious photos to U.S. law enforcement, the response from privacy advocates was forceful and predictable. This was partly because the iPhone is among the world’s most popular smartphones and because Apple has often sought to distinguish itself from other tech companies as a protector of customer privacy. But it was mainly because the new monitoring system involves no user consent.
Many children’s advocates and activists trying to prevent internet child predation hailed the move as an important step towards protecting children from online predators while simultaneously balancing consumers’ privacy by using sophisticated software. Apple itself responded forcefully that only photos being stored in Apple’s own computers would be automatically examined, the examination would involve several layers of protection for consumers, and Apple will refuse to expand this automated search to any other topic.
Many privacy advocates expressed deep concern that if Apple would automatically search users’ photos for U.S. law enforcement today, might it do so for law enforcement in other countries (since most iPhones are sold outside of the United States)? Moreover, if Apple might automatically scan photos for child pornography, might it also automatically scan photos for terrorism, sex crimes and many other offenses? The issue for privacy advocates is not so much automated photo scanning for child pornography as it is the likelihood that once we’ve established that photos will be automatically scanned for one subject, governments could use that to justify an endless list of topics for automatic scanning.
Regardless of how this particular battle between internet privacy advocates and advocates for greater protection of children on the internet is resolved, the underlying debate will continue. But, the procedural compromises, technical work-arounds, market responses and legal wrangling that emerge from this current battle will not end the war.
Given the enormous diversity of technologies that go into making the internet work, it’s almost certain that a new test of priorities can arise at any time at the level of software, devices, networks, infrastructure, laws, treaties, contracts, regulations, litigation, and the marketplace.
Roger Cochetti provides consulting and advisory services in Washington, D.C. He was a senior executive with Communications Satellite Corporation (COMSAT) from 1981 through 1994. He also directed internet public policy for IBM from 1994 through 2000 and later served as Senior Vice-President & Chief Policy Officer for VeriSign and Group Policy Director for CompTIA. He served on the State Department’s Advisory Committee on International Communications and Information Policy during the Bush and Obama administrations, has testified on internet policy issues numerous times and served on advisory committees to the FTC and various UN agencies. He is the author of the Mobile Satellite Communications Handbook.