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“Of course, dear.”

Not without controversy, and always at the forefront of the privacy debate, Facebook has come in for some stick in recent weeks for its relationship with data belonging to children and its general approach to privacy for children on-line.  In light of an arrest in the April Jones murder and the Jimmy Saville allegations, child protection rightly remains at the forefront any debate about social media and in particular, Facebook.

Europe’s hue and cry is the need to regulate social media. It’s like European regulators are entrenched within one Apple’s “there’s an App for that” campaign:

“Perceived Problem. There’s a reg for that!”

Like most people, I used to think that there was a predator lurking in the bush behind every corner, in every chat room. But there simply isn’t. The statistics don’t add up to the worry. As Dan Gartner points out in his book, “RISK: the Science & Politics of Fear”, the dangers sometimes are completely overwhelming blown out of proportion and misguided.

So when presented with some “statistics” on EU KIDS ONLINE, available here, my inclination was to view these numbers rather sceptically. I am glad I did. Firstly, Facebook doesn’t get a mention. Not once. The research solely points to Internet activity, or what teens see online via websites, not social networking, although these may include sites like Facebook.

The numbers are misleading to say the least. Only 14% of children have seen sexual images on the Internet. Of those 14%, 34% of them have been bothered by it, which means less than 5 in a 100 children actually were upset by seeing images online. Only 5% of children have had bad experiences with sex online!

And the powers that be decide that in order to solve the problems of sexual imagery and child predators: they will write a regulation for that!

Let’s regulate the platform!!!

Here is the fatal flaw in the case for Facebook regulation over children privacy settings:

Most people think sex crimes are committed by strangers lurking in bushes, but according to StatsCan, 80% of adult victims and 91 per cent of children knew the person who victimized them. If a child knows the abuser, they likely will have them as a “friend” on Facebook.

“Mum, can I add Uncle Johnny as a Friend on Facebook?”

“Of course, dear.”

And that is how it begins. No matter what regulatory measures are forced onto the Facebook platform, they will not prevent sexual predators from getting to children, especially when they already KNOW their victim in the first place.

Europe regulating Facebook in order to protect our children from paedophiles is like regulating roads to protect people from car thieves. It doesn’t make sense. The law of the land already forbids sexual offences against children, as it already protects against shoplifters.  What Europe wants to do is regulate social media under the age-old pretence of “protecting our children”. Sorry, but isn’t that the parents responsibility?

Is there a problem with sex offenders targeting children? Yes. Is it as big a problem as EU KIDS ONLINE makes it out to be? No. Is the answer regulating platforms that on occasion someone might use to lure a child to danger? Absolutely not.  Is the answer regulating children to set their privacy settings to what some obscure European agency wants them to be? Talk about paternalism.

May I be so bold to offer a more practical solution? How about parents engage their kids in conversations about the perils of social networking in the same manner that they talk about crossing the road without looking and listening? Or not letting them have a Facebook account at all under they reach a responsible age? Europe seems to be so stuck in the way of command and control regulation to fix a problem that can actually cause dramatically unintended consequences.

Once again, Internet regulators have tried to identify a problem and they have proposed a solution. They think it will work. They will convince police and social media sites to enforce.

Time will pass. Maybe there is a high profile arrest. Regulators will claim they were proven correct and it’s all down their regulation. The truth is they don’t really know if their regulation works or not. Lots of people think they do. But they don’t. And yet, despite not having a clue, regulators will come up with another one, and another one, or drop it. This is how regulation and politics work.

Online sexual predators will likely react and go further underground, but the 91% of sex attackers will still have access to children, because they are known and parents may be lulled into a false sense of security.

Junior is protected because I use Facebook’s child protection and privacy settings.”

The actually threat becomes harder to identify. Like the sex offenders register, regulations that are designed to protect children online are what I like to call, “feel good” regulations. These are regulations designed to make us all feel a little bit safer, and give us the perception of control over our children’s lives, but in reality do little to keep people safe.

In my opinion, here is the best way to regulate children – “You can have the password to the Wi-Fi, as long as I get the password to your Facebook account”. Awareness of the fact that one might be under surveillance is often enough to control some on-line behaviour. There is no need for laws, regulations, and voluntary codes that often have unintended consequences. And with sexual predators, we need to go after them, rather than go after Facebook. The ‘unintended consequence’ of regulating Facebook is that is makes them harder to track, prevent abuse, and arrest. Is this what regulators really want?