One Laptop Per Child: In the News, but Still Missing Safety

The vision behind One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) is to create educational opportunities for the world’s poorest children by providing each child with a rugged, low-cost, low-power, connected laptop with content and software designed for collaborative, joyful, self-empowered learning. This is a lofty and praiseworthy goal, but it contains one serious flaw – safety and security functionality is missing – that damages the entire project.

Giving a child Internet access without building in safety or security features for the computer, without having parental supervision in place, and without providing Internet safety education is a well understood recipe for disaster in the U.S. and other first world nations. Yet the OLPC materials state clearly that We do not focus on computer literacy, as that is a by-product of the fluency children will gain through use of the laptop for learning. This position flies in the face of our collective experience, where we’ve found that the skills needed to use technology are easily acquired, while media literacy, including the ability to discern, protect and defend oneself need to be taught.

Now compound those risks with these: built-in Web cameras with location tracking functionality that allows anyone to see and interact with the child; parents who don’t have the ability to help their children with online experiences or the funds to purchase ‘parental control’ tools; literally thousands of criminals looking for victims for everything from get-rich-quick schemes and robberies to slavery and sexual exploitation; inadequate (or non-existent) laws against cybercrime and child sexual exploitation in developing countries; and few (if any) law enforcement officers who are trained to detect online crimes (or who even access to computers).

Unfortunately, this confluence of risks is happening through the OLPC (One Laptop Per Child) and similar projects that have reaped praise from around the world. The design and environmental friendliness of these computers were carefully considered. But even basic Internet security and safety features are lacking, and there isn’t an ounce of safety education integrated in the product. In the push to build and distribute a low-cost computers, the safety of the children and youth who will use it was a casualty.

Several years ago I exchanged fairly heated email with a gentleman in the OLPC organization on this topic. When he finally agreed that safety had been overlooked, his response was:

“I think a lot of this boils down to the fact that OLPC hasn’t come up with a serious education strategy, whether it’s pedagogy for the classroom or media literacy/online safety training for kids and parents. Perhaps that’ll change. But we’ve focused so much on the tech itself that skills and content are taking a back seat.”

Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to see the day when every child has safe access to the learning opportunities that the Internet provides, but that day has not yet come. When building a product specifically for minors, safety cannot be an afterthought.

It’s not too late to make corrections. The OLPC initiative is still in the early stages of rollout. They can still do the right thing for youth by building safer laptops an tablets that include functionality that meets Internet safety standards for children. They can also work to create a supportive environment where laws, education, and adults can provide the protection youth need online.

The primary requirement must be first, do no harm

BEFORE we place any more computers in the hands of minors in any country (and before we applaud OLPC efforts any further), OLPC must give full consideration to creating a protective infrastructure following the guidelines below.

OLPC must build strong safety features into their laptops and tablets

This must include such basics as antivirus, antispam, anti-phishing, and antispyware functionality and image, text, and audio filtering. It must build in technology to carefully monitor the location tracking and video functionality as these are extremely high risk features. There must also be safety messaging integrated into the functionality, services, and user interface. (The Xbox team could teach OLPC more than a little about implementing safety throughout the design.)

OLPC must provide (or arrange for) FREE Internet safety training for every student and his or her parents

It is unrealistic to believe that families are going to know to purchase, much less afford, the purchase of parental control tools.

OLPC must collaborate with governments to help develop child predation legislation

In addition to developing new legislation they need to strengthen existing cybercrime laws needed to prosecute Internet related crimes.

Unprotected youth face a wide spectrum of crimes online ranging from scams and identity theft to physical exploitation and slavery. Few countries (if any) have adequate Internet safety crime laws and many countries have no laws against child pornography-including 95 countries that are members of Interpol. Even in countries with strong laws against the sexual exploitation of minors, such as the U.S. and much of Europe, the problem of child pornography is endemic and growing.

OLPC must facilitate international cooperation and mentoring to help track and prosecute the organized crime syndicates, the gangs, and the individuals who will prey upon the children who receive its laptops. This includes implementing systems that can track abuse patterns on a global, regional, national, and local scale in countries where there is no funding and little knowledge of the issues.

OLPC must help develop training and provide computer technology to law enforcement agencies

The police forces and criminal justice systems of the Western world are still under-prepared to tackle Internet crimes. Law enforcement in many of the countries where these laptops are being distributed often don’t even have access to the Internet, let alone the ability to subpoena records or the tools to track criminals and victims across borders, and so on.

OLPC must help train—for example, by partnering with an organization that could develop and deliver training—local law enforcement agencies in countries where it donates. It must also help improve the resources these agencies have to respond to Internet crimes made possible by access to minors through these laptops. This must include training for judges, prosecutors, and even juries.

Let me repeat my position. I want to see every child have access to the Internet – but only when safety is the guiding principle. Otherwise putting computers in the hands of youth will not be just calamitous; it will border on criminal negligence that will make the Nestle powdered milk to Africa scandal pale in comparison.



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