Cyber Conflict of Interest – Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center Calls Online Threats to Children Overblown

At first glance, the news in today’s New York Times that “the Internet may not be such a dangerous place for children after all” will give many a sense of relief. Look closer, however, and you’ll quickly discover that cyber-industry heavyweights have co-opted the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School. By selling itself to the industry it is allegedly investigating, the Berkman Center has become both a shrill and a shield for the powerful well-funded online establishment.

First the “news.” According to the NYT:

A task force created by 49 state attorneys general to look into the problem of sexual solicitation of children online has concluded that there really is not a significant problem.

The findings ran counter to popular perceptions of online dangers as reinforced by depictions in the news media like NBC’s “To Catch a Predator” series. One attorney general was quick to criticize the group’s report.

The panel, the Internet Safety Technical Task Force, was charged with examining the extent of the threats children face on social networks like MySpace and Facebook, amid widespread fears that adults were using these popular Web sites to deceive and prey on children.

. . . . .

The 278-page report, released Tuesday, was the result of a year of meetings between dozens of academics, experts in childhood safety and executives of 30 companies, including Yahoo, AOL, MySpace and Facebook.

The task force, led by the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, looked at scientific data on online sexual predators and found that children and teenagers were unlikely to be propositioned by adults online. In the cases that do exist, the report said, teenagers are typically willing participants and are already at risk because of poor home environments, substance abuse or other problems.

Okay, so they blame the victims, which is bad enough and sadly typical, but check out my highlights above . . . . “a year of meetings between dozens of academics, experts in childhood safety and executives of 30 companies . . . ” So far so good right? Looks like a completely legit, hands-off, no holds barred review of the science behind child exploitation (which is presumably what the 49 state attorney generals wanted). The word “meetings” sounds benign enough while the ever-reassuring term “cooperation” becomes the justification for the regulators getting in bed with the regulated.

Next let’s just click on over to the Bekman Center to find out who is [BUZZ WORD ALERT] “partnering” [BUZZ WORD ALERT] with the organization conducting the independent review of internet safety:

The Berkman Center Announces Formation of Internet Safety Task Force to Identify and Develop Online Safety Tools: More than 20 Organizations including AOL, AT&T, Comcast, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, MySpace, NCMEC, Symantec, Verizon and Yahoo! Join Task Force.

We should work together – private firms, technologists, experts from the non-profit world, and leaders in government – to solve online safety issues as a joint effort,” said John Palfrey, Executive Director of The Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School. “We are honored to assume the leadership of this Task Force and excited to convene the broad array of interests represented by the group.”

. . . . .

“The Berkman Center’s impressive research on the challenges and opportunities offered by the Internet makes them the ideal leader for the Task Force,” said Hemanshu Nigam, Chief Security Officer for Fox Interactive Media and MySpace. “We look forward to partnering with The Berkman Center and the Task Force to identify the technologies and tools that will be available industry-wide to provide a safer online experience for all Internet users.”

If this is not enough to convince you (and the apparently tranquilized 49 state attorney generals who agreed to this snake pit of self-dealing conflicts of interests) that there are more than a few questions about the independence of the process here, check out who “financially $upported the so-called independent review demanded by the tax-payer funded and democratically elected 49 state attorney generals:

These organizations provided financial support for the operations of the Task Force:

MTV Networks/Viacom
Turner Broadcasting
Linden Lab

Actually the report should be entitled “How the Cyber-Industry Hoodwinked 49 of the Most Powerful Law Enforcement Officers in the Country and got the New York Times to run its Press Release as News.” Oh, and I almost forgot, “and Blamed the Victims for their own Exploitation.”

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