Is parental snooping the alternative to censorship?

Anyone who is ideologically opposed to Government snooping and censorship therefore faces some difficult choices. If you do not want to grant the State far-reaching powers to watch over us, then perhaps you need to grant them to parents (and other legal guardians) so at least the most vulnerable among us enjoy some protection.

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How should a parents keep tabs on their kids?

On the technology site GigaOM, Matthew Ingram has posted two of a series of three articles about his “experiences of snooping on my kids and their online behaviour over a period of years.” He installed a ‘keylogger’ on his daughter’s computer everything she typed was e-mailed to him. When he confessed this to friends, they were shocked.

Is such parental behaviour justified? Children have fewer civil rights than adults (they cannot get married or vote) and its unreasonable to expect that they enjoy the same level of privacy as an adult – Parents should be aware of their medical conditions, for example. However, the transition from childhood, to the place where you take responsibility for yourself, is long and grey (see a previous post where I recommended aligning the age of religion with the age of consent).

When teenagers are concerned, NSA-style eavesdropping feels creepy. I think having secrets is part of what makes us a rounded and mature human being, and accepting that there are things that you do not know about your child is part of the parental process of ‘letting go’. However, much of their discourse takes place in public and semi-public social media spaces. It is less creepy to register an account and ‘follow’ a tween’s online discussions. I think that even doing so under an alias would be acceptable. What better illustration of the pitfalls in online discourse can there be, than discovering that the kid with the cat avatar you’ve been discussing Zac Efron with, was actually Your Mum?!

Overt surveillance is also an option. Parents should communicate with, and comment on the messages from their parents, under their real names too. When the teenager ‘blocks’ their parents from viewing their profile, that’s the signal that they are becoming technologically literate, and savvy online!

Parents can even negotiate with their kids on some kind oversight. I have argued previously that if children are now ‘authors’ and ‘publishers’ then parents need to act as ‘literary agents’ and ‘editors’. “Did you your really mean to publish that?” If a child were to photocopy personal pages from their diary, and post them as flyers on a lamppost, then parents would probably have a conversation with them about whether that was a good idea.

Who surveils?

Ingram was writing in the USA, in response to Edward Snowden’s leaked revelations about extensive Government surveillance. But his article is a timely contribution to UK politics too. We are simultaneously discussing two other technology related issues: Default filters to block porn; and the threats and bullying found on social media sites.

These debates are often spoiled by a technically illiterate outrage that targets only the visible end result of a particular problem, not the muddle of underlying causes. Thus we hear demands for the Government to force opt-out censorship on ISPs, which are bound to mean that many important websites (such as those offering sexual health advice) are blocked. Thus we see calls for easier blocking of Twitter trolls, which are bound to be abused by ideologues who wish to shut down dissent.

Although it is easy for liberally-minded folk like me to criticise the Will No-One Think Of The Kids? brigade, the stories of people like Hannah Smith, bullied into suicide, demand some kind of answer. ‘People need to get thicker skins’ is not a serious response.

Anyone who is ideologically opposed to Government snooping and censorship therefore faces some difficult choices. If you do not want to grant the State far-reaching powers to watch over us, then perhaps you need to grant them to parents (and other legal guardians) so at least the most vulnerable among us enjoy some protection. Perhaps parental snooping is the only viable alternative to blanket censorship?

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