Why I disagree with Cory Doctorow

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Blog Post 4/1/11 Thoughts on ALA/OIF Youth Privacy Conference March 24-25th Chicago  

Is privacy dead, or do kids just use a different vocabulary to describe it? How can we as adults help to give kids the information they need to make informed choices about privacy, and encourage them to think critically about privacy issues in all aspects of their lives, both online and offline?

These are some of the issues we grappled with at the ALA/OIF Privacy and Youth Conference, held in Chicago March 24-25th. Those of you who follow me on Twitter might have noticed the stream of #youthprivacy tweets.

The conference was the kickoff to a new phase of privacy initiatives from the American Library Association's Office of Intellectual Freedom following the success of the annual Choose Privacy Week (May 1-7, 2011). For over three years, ALA/OIF, assisted by two grants from the Open Society Institute, has been focused on creating a national conversation around privacy. The Youth and Privacy conference came from the following realization:

The future of privacy advocacy and protections in the United States really depends on young people’s awareness of the long-term importance of personal privacy protections (particularly regarding use of the Internet and social media), and how government surveillance of citizens’ activities poses a chilling threat to our nation’s future. Libraries are ideal places for youth to learn about privacy and see it in action, given our long history of protecting the freedom to read.

David Levithan suggested I go (thank you, David!) because I've written extensively about the Patriot Act and FISA in my political columnist life, and also because my upcoming book WANT TO GO PRIVATE? is about a high school freshman who develops a relationship with an online "friend".

When I was at Scholastic for the NY Teen Author Festival, the On Our Minds Blog asked us me why kids (and adults) should read every day. This was my answer:

That was an important part of this conference for me. It was also how I got into an argument, via Skype, with Cory Doctorow. Yeah, *that* Cory Doctorow.

So here's the thing. I have used monitoring software on both my kids laptops since 2006, which I found out that my daughter had been the victim of a cyberbullying incident. One of her 5th grade friends was mad at her and created a website called "Ihate_______"(insertdaughter'sname). I didn't find out what was going on until the situation had been going on for well over a month and a half, and my daughter had responded to the friend with a serious of emails.

When I did find out, I had a long talk with my daughter, and even though she had initially been the victim, I revoked her Internet privileges for several weeks. Why? Because I told her by retaliating instead of coming to me, she hadn't used good judgment and further, the way she'd responded in those emails wasn't the way I'd brought her up to behave.

I'd expected a fight when I took away her computer but she handed it over without a peep. I honestly think she was relieved.

What blew my mind, after talking to the parents of the other kids involved, was the level of denial. One mom said, "Oh, but they're such good kids, I can't believe they'd do anything nasty." I wanted to forward her some of the emails her little darling had been sending, filled with foul language and vitriol - IN FIFTH GRADE!

I'm not saying these weren't good kids. They are all "good kids". What I am saying is what we all know - that even "good kids" can behave badly online. Look at the way adults behave on any newspaper comments section.

I never wanted to be blindsided by a situation like that again. A few years previously, I'd taken part in the Citizens Police Academy run by Greenwich Police Dept, so I called the Detective who'd talked to us about Cyber Crime and asked him for advice. He recommended the monitoring software that I've been using ever since.

I told both my kids I was putting the software on their laptops. It's never been a matter of me being sneaky and conducting secret surveillance. I just said that it was a condition of them being on the the Internet until they were legally old enough to take responsibility for their own actions. Because let's face it - I'm the Parent with a capital P. I'm the one who is legally and financially responsible for anything that they do until they reach majority.

At the conference, I met two representatives from the National Youth Rights Association, Jeffrey Nadel, President, and Alex Koroknay-Palicz, Executive Director. Alex was part of my discussion group, and it was from him that I got first shocked, horrified, expression when I said I used monitoring software. That was the start of the belief-challenging exercise.

It continued the next morning when Cory Doctorow Skyped in from London to address the conference. Cory went so far as to say that when parents are using monitoring software on their kids computers, they're giving them the message that privacy isn't important, and thus this leads to a generation that accepts government surveillance as "good for them".

Well, it's not easy to get up and argue with someone like Cory Doctorow, but at that point I was mad enough to do it. Because, frankly, I think that's bunkum, and I still do. Maybe it's true if parents are secretly using spy ware, but my use of monitoring software has always been part of the wider conversation about online use, etiquette and safety. It's helped prevent at least one potentially dangerous situation and created countless teachable moments about what is and is not appropriate to do online.

My son is turning 18 soon and he's getting a new computer for college. He knows that the new computer will be monitoring software free, and we had a conversation about what he's learned from the talks we've had. He also knows that he will now be legally accountable for himself. No Mommy to fall back on.

One person at my table asked me if I'd ever read my daughter's diary. "Of course not!" I answered. Alex asked me what's the difference between reading my daughter's diary and using monitoring software.

Here's the difference and I think it's REALLY important: My daughter's diary is in a notebook somewhere in her disgustingly messy room. But that room is contained in my house, which is protected by a security system that is linked to the Greenwich Police Department, and I know personally everyone who comes in and out of that room.

BUT: The minute she turns on her laptop the situation changes. The entire world gains access to my daughter's room. Any stranger can enter. And because my daughter feels safe because she is in her room, in our house, she'll feel more comfortable interacting with them than she would if she were at a shopping mall or on a city street or in a dark alley.

Hence the monitoring software. I view it as the online version of the burglar alarm I have to protect my home, until my kids are 18.

For those who would say that this destroys my relationship of trust with my kids, I cannot tell you how wrong you are. The opposite is true - because I've always been open with them, because we discuss things and have these important conversations, we trust each other implicitly.

As for Cory Doctorow's argument that it's teaching my kids that government surveillance is okay, that's where I get really pissed off.

I'm a political columnist and my kids have heard me railing against the Patriot Act since the day it was passed in 2001. I've read them the hate mail I've received from angry readers after some of my columns were published, the ones that called me an "America-hating Terrorist lover", or telling me that I was "using the American Way of Life to Destroy the American Way of Life and the Rest of Western Civilization in the Process". They've had to deal with us having an unlisted phone number because I started getting nasty letters at our old house and I didn't want people to know our address after we moved.

I truly believe that it's false argument that a parent who openly monitors their child's Internet activity because they want to keep them safe (not to mention that they are legally responsible for their child's actions until the age of 18) is teaching them to accept government surveillance. Because it's ALL ABOUT THE CONVERSATIONS. It's something I say over and over again. It's called PRO-ACTIVE PARENTING. Monitoring the kids has allowed me to be proactive rather than reactive, like I was when the cyber-bullying incident occurred. There are plenty of fires happening offline when you have teenagers that you have to deal with re actively on a day by day basis - but the Internet is just too big of a risk to take. It's like an elephant. It never forgets. And one little mistake can travel worldwide.

Let my kids make their mistakes in their offline lives, where they have the privacy to do so.

And Cory - your child is still in day care. Let's revisit this argument when she's a teenager. I'll be interested to see if you're quite as sanguine as you are now.

Copyright Sarah Darer Littman 2013