Thinking Unconstrained

Examining the world with a critical eye. Topics span a wide range including but not limited to, observations, insights, problems, solutions, proposals, and hypothetical scenarios.
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By Sybilla
When a young person walks into a bar and asks for a beer, the barman in return asks for identification. When a teenager wants to see a "mature" showing at a movie theater, the adolescent is kindly told to go watch something more age appropriate. If one wants to purchase a firearm, one needs to show their legal age and wait for a prescribed period before being able to take the firearm home. So why is it that a five year old child can open a tablet and perform an internet search for her "interesting new word of the day" and be exposed to all sorts of inappropriate content? There's no safeguard whatsoever on the internet and at first glance this appears to be a continuation of the shortcomings of television, movies and games ratings. That is, the onus is on the parent to ensure that the child is protected from harmful media by configuring the appropriate child protection settings on the device. This may have made sense once upon a time, but to apply this logic to the internet in the year 2021 is simply ludicrous. We now have generations of people who live more on the internet than they do in real life, and who have done so since they were able to get their hands on a personal handheld babysitter. It doesn't take long before the child's circle of friends nullifies a parent's attempt at protecting her. This portal/gateway device is a quick way of robbing a child of his or her childhood, ultimately creating a broken human being.

Unrestrained access to the internet without any form of authorization is then a terrible way of protecting the young and the innocent. Relying on a single device with restricted content can easily be worked around by any curious child with a tomato for a brain. The danger is no longer just "out there" in the dark streets but rather in your house, on the sheet of black glass in your child's hands. So why is it that we allow this? Do we not care? Is the problem too difficult to solve? After all, the same situation has existed since the days of television and we don't have broken human beings scarred by exposure to such content. To get a better perspective on this, let us examine the differences between a child exposed to inappropriate content on television versus a child exposed to the internet.

Before ubiquitous access to the internet became the norm, families watched television. It served as the main source of entertainment for the entire family and was often situated as the center piece of every living room in households around the world. Children for the most part were exposed to inappropriate content through this medium, often staying up late to catch a glimpse of whatever taboo thing that spiked their interests. The adults were expected to ensure that the children were not watching such content by keeping televisions out of their bedrooms and making sure that they were in bed on time. But no matter how inappropriate the content may have been, there was a limit to what was shown on late night television for the general public. If you wanted to watch something more explicit, you had to opt in separately, often paying for the content. Thus the exposure to danger was controlled by the system by default. Let us now contrast this with internet access using a tablet or a phone.

First of all, a child may or may not have restricted access to websites and apps through parental controls. Those who do not have restricted access are automatically exposed to the entirety of the internet. This single point of failure can easily disseminate any content to their network of friends through a variety of channels. If the restricted access is in place, then perhaps some of these channels are also restricted but the likelihood is that it will be circumvented by some other means. On such a restricted access device, a child is still able to query through search engines and look up harmless words or made-up secret words that will expose them to inappropriate content. One has to assume that they can be very inventive and they will inform one another of such methods, as all children naturally do. Thus the only recourse left is to restrict all internet access unless it can be monitored directly. It's as if the internet was fire and the child must never be allowed to be alone with it. Comparing internet access to television then is like comparing apples to oranges. So what can be done about it?

I for one want to see a clean internet accessible to anyone of any age as the default. It's akin to cleaning up your street outside your front door. When that street is clean, children are safe to play. It doesn't make any sense to have a war zone outside your front door and expect your children to not become casualties. At least provide a safe door or an bunker access so that they won't have to deal with it until they're ready. No sensible society should expect their children to become internet Rambos at the age of 4 nor should parents be forced to accept such inadequate protection from governing bodies.
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By G.I. Bergstein
The proposal flies headwind in the face of net neutrality laws, and the concept of a free and open internet. Managing such traffic is difficult from a legal standpoint and it wouldn't scale very well. However, content restriction is applied in many countries around the world, most notably in authoritarian Muslim and Marxist nations. ISPs monitor traffic and block all content they deem are inappropriate for their citizens. Unfortunately this process has not always been for the benefit of the people, although it's been framed in this way to garner public support. Therefore any implementation involving a middleman approach will not be successful in a society that wants net neutrality to exist.

If a local device-level implementation is pursued, it would most likely be some sort of a software running on the device. These are commonly known as parental control apps. They don't do everything but they allow content filtering and tracking the child's online activities and location. The implementation still places the onus on the parent to set up the software and to continue monitoring the child, so it's not a hands-off solution by any means. Using the analogy of a war-zone outside your front door, it's like scaling the little Rambo from DEFCON 1 readiness to DEFCON 4. It's not an entirely safe solution but it should be manageable as long as you continue being a helicopter parent, providing firm air support and evac options to the lone soldier behind enemy lines.

On the other end of the spectrum, a hypothetical societal solution that does not involve a middleman approach is to regulate the internet content as you would any other activity requiring permits, licenses, and registrations. If websites and their contents were required to be listed so as to be accessible using an international technical standard, it should be easier for the content to be screened from all levels. For example, if a website was registered as Rated 13, then it would need to operate under that limitation and it would be accessible by any device allowing Rated 13 access. If however a website was registered as Rated 18, then it would be accessible by any device owned by a legal adult but barred from access for any device operated by a minor. If a website is not registered at all then it would not be listed and access is barred (unless you opt into unfiltered mode). Such filtering can be localized at the device level without any ISP or parental control apps. It would just be a regular feature with a handful of switches to transition between the different modes. This could theoretically provide higher quality and safe internet access as a default experience without incurring much cost to the vendors adopting the new standard.
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By Candideto
Regulation itself is in the domain of governing bodies and they have differing views on how contents are labeled and managed. For instance, something that is deemed Rated 13 in one country may actually be Rated 15 in another. So even if there's meta data or other registration requirements, a website cannot be universally accessible in the same way across different nations. One would need something more broad than specific ages, likely an age range such as, "child", "pre-teen", "teen", "adult", "elderly", etc. The meta data for the age ratings field can also have attributes listing the reasons such as nudity, violence, or language. The implementation can be tied to DNS, CA, or be some JSON/XML data that is pulled upon a website access. It's certainly do-able if there's international agreement to enforce it and compliance from tech firms in deploying it.

The idea itself also opens doors for other possibilities in better organizing and managing the internet. It can allow categorizations to be built-in so that websites can be better filtered by the end user. They wouldn't be filters like those search engines of the pre-Google days, but rather they would need to be broad and geared towards something similar to business registrations and quality control. This would allow separation of commercial, non-profit, hobby, and social media websites. The end user would have better control of what is black and white listed rather than depending on the whims of big tech algorithms. The issue of privacy can also be greatly curtailed if access is based on transparent technical standard that is configured under full control by the user.

In such a framework, the database of registered websites would be publicly available and accessible by anyone. Although it would be possible to manually browse through this database, some sort of a search functionality would be needed. Regular search engines can use it to crawl and index and provide the necessary functionality based on their algorithms, but ideally it should not be necessary for the end user to be dependent upon them to search the database. The framework will need to be an international technical standard, owned by a public entity for the benefit of the people of the entire planet rather than a single nation or a group of club nations. The adoption and control would remain in the domain of the individual policy makers of those nations, but the technical requirements should be strongly biased against the influences of government and business interests.

Taking this idea a step further, it's possible that the standardization process could establish international utility entities, and that might allow de-monopolization of large businesses and level the playing field for smaller players. Once there's co-operation at a technical level, the next step would be to convince governing bodies on the virtues of internet regulation and the provision of a new tool for them to affect policy measures. This latter aspect would be the biggest hurdle as it may conflict with national security needs, but such inertia is always going to be an issue whenever a new paradigm shift is proposed.
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By G.I. Bergstein
Indeed the likelihood of a supranational utility entity independent of the reaches of nation states and multinational business interests would be very low, as it will most likely be viewed as treasonous, unmanageable, and unfundable. It will not be implementable in a traditional sense, as one would need to follow the path of established systems and channels through the existing bureaucracies. One avenue of success however is that of something akin to open-source software, such as the GNU project, or standards such as the IEEE that gave rise to the 802.11 - the protocol that makes up most of the "internet" today. These are public entities actively developed and maintained by technically respected members, who want to do so rather than because somebody is paying them to. Therefore it's not quite necessary to have a "utility" as a branch of a government or something that is overseen by authoritative organizations such as the United Nations or the World Bank. In other words, there does not need to be any inherent power in the organization of the utilities for this to work.

As for funding such an operation, it's also not necessary for it to be sponsored by large private investments or by governmental assistance. Crowd funding and individual charity donations are certainly viable options, but it would be preferable if the utilities were paid for by the public instead. This could take the form of pre-tax contributions or other tax incentives and structures to allow individuals to directly fund public projects. As for managing such entities, administration and organization will be needed to some extent but the actual work should follow the spirit of open-source and standards of technical excellence. Politics and profit motives should be eliminated or at least minimized to have negligible influence, although those things always manage to creep into everything as human nature plays out through its natural course. It's something that needs to be kept in check, akin to maintenance of old machines.

Large businesses and monopolies can also still form in this type of organization as well. Controversies surrounding entities such as AT&T telecommunications or the railroads industry of the 19th century US can still occur, if effective antitrust restrictions are not exercised. There's no one-size fits all solution and division of responsibilities between public and private spheres will need to be worked through for every unique situation. But as a rule of thumb, enablement infrastructures should be public whereas anything that depend on the infrastructure should be private. Those private entities should remain separate and never be placed in situations that would encroach their private interests back upon the public entities, lest it become a monopoly to the detriment of the entire industry. However, natural monopolies, high-tech and proprietary knowledge can all work against this principle, and it's difficult to implement an effective division when private monopolies are preferable to the sub-par alternatives (or so would the monopolists like to have you believe!).

Hence the original proposal may not see the light of day until the appropriate conditions are met to allow such a public utility to exist. But that doesn't mean that academic exercises and prototypes cannot be pursued in the meanwhile. It would be interesting to see various proposals in the research space and see what kinds of things can emerge.