Internet Watch Foundations: in the plural, please

UNICEF writes: “the global momentum to expand and integrate early education services into education systems has great potential. But it also carries risks, if programming is not appropriate to meet children’s learning needs and interests.” That’s a document from 2018. The four year gap managed to bring some of us to the other side of a pandemic, but with less “united” nations. Families, on the other hand (if you’re always shifting between micro and macro), arguably are the first to see their children’s potential—but the last, sometimes, to effectively help them with their personal struggles, ignoring certain privacy laws that have been sketchy in their making, to say the least. Nobody’s saying anything about mainstream (yet), but let’s look at the terms: “when you sign in with your Google account, we use the watch and search history tied to each specific installation of the app to recommend content on YouTube Kids (…) and we will continue to use that watch and search history for recommendations even if you sign out of the app, unless they are cleared and paused in the settings.” Now, look: I would like to be my children’s pal. Buddy, bro, or whatever they’re saying now. Some even call strangers “fam”. Language changes, media evolves. But I’m concerned whether this is related to their attitude towards other tiny human beings or in fact a taste for a specific brand of chocolate bar. Further in the document, the biggest concept of debate in a largely agreed upon functioning of automation processes, as covered before here and there, is not permission, but consent. Back to those terms: “with consent, we may share individual user information with companies, organizations or individuals outside of Google.” The definitions will be challenged, as they should; but not by someone who’s oblivious to the existence of Semiotics.

Learning early on that commercial activity has a history isn’t meant to be, some would strongly defend, looking at your browser settings. However, digital marketing increasingly plays a role (or maybe several roles) in the decisions we make, big and small. An old friendship, 10 years from now, will remember the lockdown as a moment of introspection and self-discovery; another might celebrate the loss of 20 pounds—but who’s likely to be inspired by that, one wonders? Frances Haugen might be one of those people. Investigation on Instagram’s internal recommendation mechanisms (the famous “algorithm”, if we’re free from technicalities) concluded that eating disorders were paired with the platform’s recommendations of accounts promoting weight loss, per recording. I’m very tempted to compare this with the Brazilian TV morning menu. Try to make sense of the biggest business decisions around the world during the weekend, as a Brazilian entrepreneur (or a curious being), and you’ll be offered, on cable, with Polishop commercials. It seems that a product of the marginalia is being offered products from the people who labelled him (or her) as such, but that is not all: the marginalia product is also being labelled, and graded down, and down again. If only you could have early education in the marginal label. Maria Popova makes us think, with her time-stopping analyses, day in and day out; here quoting a woman with labels: Caribbean-American poet, essayist, feminist, lesbian icon, and anti-war, civil rights, and human rights activist, who writes: “I am Black, Woman, and Poet—fact, and outside the realm of choice. I can choose only to be or not be, and in various combinations of myself. And as my breath is part of my breathing, my eyes of my seeing, all that I am is of who I am, is of what I do. The shortest statement of philosophy I have is my living, or the word ‘I’. Having made homes in most parts of this city, I hang now from the west edge of Manhattan, and at any moment I can cease being a New Yorker, for already my children betray me in television, in plastic, in misplaced angers.” I wonder if some of my own “misplaced angers” are merging states of being, like needing to smoke and being offered a thousand dollar vacuum cleaner. There is anger, yes; but misplacement is not to be associated with it, as a label, or even a diagnosis. Refugee is just an inconvenient word. Misplacement, in a globalized world being transformed by the sheer fact it was called upon in a label, is the real issue: here, we’re talking about identity, belonging, and needs; not television, and certainly not plastic.

One could say the plastic arts will offer you a possible intersection—between labels. Music has, with tech; why wouldn’t other forms of art be? Because art is a form of play, and playing is a form of learning: we have experiences we wish to express, without knowing how people will understand their representation—sometimes, we don’t ourselves, and slowly build that knowledge. There’s assured enjoyment, motivation, thrill and pleasure in making art, but art is defined by a set of standards, isn’t it? It has been. And it’s worth keeping in mind what our scholars (here in Brazil) have taught us: “even the new, the unpublished, is soon grabbed by the apparatus of the ordinary analogies and the attitudes lacking imagination or availability. The numbed senses do not help themselves mutually, do not retribute the real experiences, do not cooperate to reach beyond the predisposed images, beyond the verbal prejudice. Everyone has a terrifying fear of being mystified, of looking naïve, subjected to the mischievousness of a sharper sensitivity or a wider imagination. What follows is the trenches built against every unexpected object, every new solution, every innovative structure. The dominant concern is to reduce innovation, transform it in everything that could seem like or invoke the past. When the task is done, they feel safe again with themselves, more relaxed. They either forget the new object, disdaining it because it takes us away from our habits, or relegate it, without a look of sympathy, to the dust heap of old and useless, prohibited things. For that reason, we live in a world of cliché-images, in verbal and visual languages. The civilization of today is composed exclusively of clichés, geometrically multiplied.”

Reducing innovation in order to invoke the past: that is an accurate description of an either disoriented or disorienting art critic. But does that relate to art and nothing else? We don’t have to discuss status quo. We don’t need philosophy here. We’re debating play, playfulness, the right to have this element in your life, the right to emphasize the role of such an essential element in your life. Hopefully, then, we’ll try out possibilities, revise hypotheses and discover new challenges, leading to deeper learning. And learning with others, we’ll become deeply involved, often combining physical, mental and verbal engagement. And with that engagement, without the trenches, but armed with imagination, maybe we’ll be better able to communicate ideas, to understand others through social interaction, paving the way to build deeper understanding and more powerful relationships. But you see, that’s what UNESCO wants for kids (I’m paraphrasing). What YouTube wants for kids—or rather, from kids—is to “collect their Google Account information, such as email address and password, and, as applicable, profile information for any profiles parents create for their child as well as parental controls and customization preferences. The profile information includes your child’s name or nickname, their age, and their month of birth if they choose to provide it. The app collects customization preferences such as videos blocked from the app, videos you may allow in the app, and channels to which they may subscribe. The app also collects the child’s app activity data including watch and search history specific to each child.”

Consider the fact that this isn’t some high-school essay. Brazilian, marginalized, but educated, the understanding of the English language opened up countless possibilities for me—many, fortunately or not, in terms of romantic relationships. But to be frank, honest, and cover half my face while saying these words, sexual is more accurate. Under Trump, FOSTA was passed: an abbreviation for Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act. There was also the PWMCT act, which few seem to remember. When you study digital media inspired by Gunther Kress, author of titles such as “Reading Images”, you do look at images—and video; but you’re teased consistently with the real meaning of the word “traffic”—dare I say, especially in this area. Go on YouTube and search for how to increase traffic. I’ll do it for you, don’t worry: the top result has 187k views. But let’s not talk about content strategy, especially when recent history documents that actual drug trafficking was proposed to become a crime punishable with prison for people as young as 14 years old. If we take this word play too seriously, we might lose our minds; but when it comes to sex trafficking and the conception of web traffic, I personally agree, in every stance, that owning underage sexual media, or worse, sharing it, should have consequences. The problem is that when you say that, you refuse a pill you probably need to swallow: children learn by playing, but teenagers learn by fighting. I don’t think we want to be shooting drug dealers, and let’s just look at Pfeizer’s profits, for example, if nobody’s able to think at the moment.

To put things in context—and the sketchiness is admitted, at least—a recent case showed government intervention in a young girl’s right to have an abortion. She’d been a victim of rape, which configures a situation, under law, where it’s legal to perform it. Brazil still adheres to law written in 1940, with the “right to life” term, characterizing abortion as a crime punishable with up until 5 years for the woman. To be very clear: legislation in Brazil criminalizes abortion (the link in Portuguese, but Wikipedia confirms that). Speaking of images, I was 21 when I saw both my future child in the palm of my devastated, shaking and sobbing partner’s hands and also when I held my 84 year old grandfather’s hand in his funeral. When it was my grandma’s time, 91, the entire family emotionally wrecked by the impacts of her Alzheimer’s disease, I wept without knowing how many times I’d be able to do the same.

What happens on the internet is that people think they can make rules for how people live their lives—but they don’t have a right to. This right was made up: someone started a company, wrote a text too long for anyone to read, and the entire world accepted. Currently, they’re discussing the EARN IT Act (Eliminating Abusive and Rampant Neglect of Interactive Technologies Act of 2022). Some are paying attention, and providing clarifications and responsible debate. Others are wondering if their teacher wants to be a good daddy. What they don’t often think about is that, for example, the Internet Watch Foundation, working to “stop the repeated victimization of people abused in childhood”, receives around 2 million dollars from just 19 firms among their top donators, enlisted with several others. You see? Mastercard wants me to be a responsible daddy. But last time I used the physical card, I bought cookies for myself. How’s that for childish?

(Disclosure: the facts are facts, however harsh. The image is from Pexels, and this kid shouldn’t represent anything but a young person browsing the web. I hope he has a good education and doesn’t make any big mistakes.)

More of my writing is on ivobr.substack.com (where you can pay for a bit of a thorny discussion, which, surprisingly or not, is welcome).

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