Child abuse risks for $100 laptops?

Today's BBC news reporting the breakup of a global online pedophile ring reminds us that low-cost laptop computer providers face many thorny social responsibilities.

Amy Tiemann
Amy Tiemann, Ph.D., is the author of Mojo Mom: Nurturing Your Self While Raising a Family and creator of MojoMom.com.
Amy Tiemann
3 min read

Today the BBC reported a chilling update about the breakup of a global child abuse network that was run from a family farmhouse in England. Over 700 suspects have been identified and 31 children were rescued--but with over 85,000 images supplied by the mastermind, we may never know how many children were involved.

This news got me thinking about the potential child abuse risks inherent in the One Laptop Per Child initiative and other "$100 laptop" projects. These well-intentioned efforts plan to give computers to poor children throughout the world, to facilitate their education and fuel economic development. Machines are being rolled out by the thousands in test programs in places like Uruguay, Nigeria and Thailand.

In America, even tech-savvy parents have a hard time monitoring children's safe computer use. We are told not to put a computer in our kids' bedrooms, and not to allow them to use webcams. What happens when we bring video-enabled, networked laptops into poor communities, where parents may not be able to read, much less understand how to use technology? My concerns were raised, and when I contacted internet child-safety expert Linda Criddle, who has worked on raising awareness of this issue for a couple of years, she brought up detailed concerns about these efforts.

Criddle says that child pornography is among the "perfect microbusinesses" waiting to explode if laptops are distributed without proper precautions. Criddle warns that "we are about to unleash on the weakest people, children in the third world, the worst that the internet can offer, as well as the best." Unfortunately, she says computer companies do not have safety plans in place, and her warning seems to be falling on deaf ears among industry representatives she has contacted.

Criddle is an independent consultant, author of the book Look Both Ways: Help Protect Your Family on the Internet, and a 13-year verteran of Microsoft, where she was the senior product manager for child and personal safety for the MSN division. Criddle has spoken to representatives of Microsoft's internal low-cost PC group, the Grameen Bank's low-cost laptop program, and Nicholas Negroponte's One Laptop Per Child organization.

She describes the response to her warnings:

"People in the developing world are incredibly resourceful...but you cannot drop them into an environment like the internet and think it will all be for good--that is criminal naivete. I have challenged this with different organizations, and what I have gotten every time, to my utter horror and dismay, is a response like 'Oh gosh, well okay, so we're going to have to think about that, but first we have to get [the machines] out there,' and I'm saying, you had better get the infrastructure in order first, because you are about to do the next version of the powdered milk disaster in Africa. It's going to be horrific, and we can't let that happen."

Criddle says that a comprehensive safety strategy is doable; she has already done considerable work to develop that architecture.

I contacted OLPC about this issue and they could not respond in time to contribute to this piece. I will post their response at a later date if I receive it. On the OLPC wiki I could only find a few paragraphs of cursory Q&A about child safety.

Criddle's requirements sound daunting to me, but necessary, beginning with the fact that many countries have inadequate or nonexistent laws protecting children from abuse and exploitation. Criddle recommends a strategy that encompasses judiciary reform, law enforcement training, and comprehensive parent training, in addition to training the kids themselves about what is truly at stake. She says, "Handing a laptop to a child is the last step in building a positive environment for internet use." Safeguards need to be in place within the computers themselves, peripheral devices, and in the software and services they will use.

This is a tall order, but in a world where economic realities still lead some parents to sell one daughter into sexual servitude in order to feed the rest of the family, we cannot afford to unleash new communication technology without thoroughly considering the consequences. As we move to improve the quality of life and opportunity for education of youth in the developing works, we must begin by living the motto "first, do no harm."

[Note: This article solely reflects the reporting and opinion of Amy Tiemann. It does not reflect the opinion of her husband Michael or his employer, Red Hat, which is a sponsor of the OLPC initiative.]