When Labor announced a commitment to a ‘pen licence for the digital age’ for young people, it’s easy to see why it led to round mocking going on across social media. The idea sounded like it had been thought up by Principal Skinner or Steve Buscemi in a backwards basketball cap. In sound-bite form, it came across as the classical twentieth-century solution for a twenty-first-century problem.
Nonetheless, as people who think about digital rights and online spaces a lot, we believe that education and empowerment are a better starting point when it comes to online safety than we’ve seen from the other side of the divide. Online safety has been a source of significant policy activity in the last two years, and much of it leaves a lot to be desired.
The highly invasive, deeply problematic Identify and Disrupt Act created the capacity for warrantless, mass surveillance on the justification that police would be able ‘to tackle criminals on the dark web including paedophiles and traffickers.’ The Online Safety Act, which came into force last month, contains some good features, but also incentivises over-policing and censorship, with a range of sweeping powers and few checks and balances—far fewer than many people realise. It also harbingers a growing fixation on age-verification as a technical tool to prevent minors from accessing restricted material online and proposals to reduce anonymity and pseudonymity, despite concerns that both approaches could lead to an increase in online harm, rather than a reduction.
The LNP government has been talking about online safety from the perspective of moralism and policing, rather than rights and empowerment for people. It has also taken a distinctly reactive approach to the problem of harm, rather than looking to prevention. Conservatives do this because it works for them to pander to the religious right by politically empowering cops rather than citizens, without ever dealing with the complexity of online harms that lie underneath. It’s also not hard to imagine why this might be popular: the internet can unquestionably be a bin fire of bad behaviour. Desperate and scared parents are understandably worried about their kids online. So the question becomes: is there another way to think about online safety?
In this context, educational programs for school children seem like a necessary, if insufficient step. Labor’s proposal—essentially for digital and media literacy education to be available universally for school children—seems sensible. The problem is that it is simply not enough: digital literacy is something that ought to be taught for all aspects of online life, not just in respect to media. We should be equipping children to understand the business models of big tech and how it influences our personal preferences and democracy, the role of automation and the challenges of algorithmic harm, the liberating potential of open-source platforms and resources, and the basics of how different layers of software and hardware fit together—to name a few. This is not to say that children should all be taught to code. Rather, that they should be given the opportunity to develop a critical understanding not of just technology itself, but of who controls it and how it can be used to influence a range of aspects of our lives.
However, digital literacy is only one component of online safety. Creating a safe digital future also means protecting and expanding our rights to privacy, security and democratic participation.
It’s not just the responsibility of individuals to protect themselves. There are plenty of other policy fields that can be regulated to restructure these spaces for the better. At present, for example, a long-overdue review of the Privacy Act is underway. If we consider the harms caused by how big tech currently uses our personal information to turn a profit through personalised advertising, bolstered by algorithmic models for engagement and amplification, then it follows that reorganising how our personal information is regulated could significantly improve the quality of online spaces. Various reviews and reports have already suggested as much. All that is lacking is a little political boldness.
It is also possible to imagine how a more proactive approach to digital security could improve online safety for everyday people. The debate surrounding encryption has raged in Australia and internationally for over twenty years, yet political leaders continue to frame it as an inhibitor to safety—without so much as sparing a breath for how it is one of the only mechanisms we have to safeguard our collective digital security. If the thought of a stranger gaining access to your webcam or internet-enabled baby monitor makes you feel unsafe, strong encryption is what prevents that from occurring. If the idea of government agencies peeping into confidential conversations between journalists, activists and whistleblowers makes you concerned about the kind of world we may be hurtling towards, encryption is there to slow it down.
Online safety need not be about virtuous fearmongering—it can and should be about promoting the autonomy and security of individuals, as against both big tech and the surveillance state. We know that carceral approaches in the physical world only create a sense of safety for some, and leave others subject to even more violence. The same can be said for online spaces. So we’re happy that Labor has committed to resourcing a universal digital literacy program for children, but that cannot be where the commitment ends.
If Labor wanted to set itself apart, it could start by promising to implement a range of policy proposals that are already on the table that could contribute to a more expansive idea of online safety. Bolder still, strong opposition against the introduction of rampant surveillance powers, invasive technologies such as facial recognition, and attempts to undermine our digital security would be welcome moves to enhance our collective safety in the digital age.
Otherwise, Labor stands to teach kids about safety online, without helping to create a future where safety online is actually possible. Right now, who we’d like to see earn a digital licence before being allowed to continue to use the internet is the Australian government.