ExpressVPN Scholarship 2020 Winning Essay
Ho Hui Jun
University College London, UK
While privacy is often recognized as a human right, young children are frequently incapable of making choices in defense of that right. For example, babies have no say in whether their parents post photos of them on Facebook. To what extent should parents be free to make privacy-affecting decisions on behalf of their children? What (if any) new measures do you think governments or internet businesses ought to put in place in order to protect young children’s right to privacy?
Here’s an experiment: Go out to the streets, snap a photo of a random child, and post it on Facebook. Chances are that someone will try to stop you or call the police. However, if that child was your own, you could snap and upload away without anyone thinking twice. The children in both scenarios are equally vulnerable. They are both unaware of their privacy rights, much less able to enforce them. The only difference is that in the latter case, the person uploading the photo is the child’s parent, which makes it seemingly acceptable.
Few would dispute that children have a right to privacy. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Child stipulates that a child’s privacy shall not be subject to unlawful and arbitrary interference. This extends to online privacy. The UN Children’s Fund (Unicef) now recognizes, as a general principle, that children have the right to privacy and protection of their personal data. However, many believe that children lack the means and capacity to directly enforce their privacy rights. Therefore, as with most other rights, society vests parents with the power and responsibility over a child’s privacy rights. After all, if parents can decide whether their children should receive medical treatment, why shouldn’t they decide whether to share photos of their children online?
The fundamental assumption behind allowing parents to exercise rights on their children’s behalf must be that parents are better placed to act in the best interest of their children—and therein lies the problem. Social media helps parents stay connected with relatives and friends. It allows them to share news about how their children are developing. However, as more parents embrace what Leah Plunkett terms “sharenthood,” they may not be aware of the risks that come with sharing about their children online. They could be exposing their children to identity theft or deepfakes. It could also be something more benign, such as the children living with having their embarrassing photos lurking on the internet for years after.
There is much that governments and internet businesses can do. Nations can put in place laws to prevent adults from exploiting the identities and photos of children on social media. They can also make social media businesses responsible for improving their safe use measures to safeguard children. Policy makers and regulators have a duty to study this issue much more closely alongside experts to generate greater awareness of its pervasiveness and presently overlooked status.
Internet businesses, with their know-how and insight into the online security risks, could also take direct measures to safeguard children. There could be reporting channels to report suspicious activity involving children and monitoring software to identify misuse of children’s identities. Taking a leaf from virtual private network (VPN) technology, internet businesses can also consider launching a private network for parents to share more sensitive information or media to known contacts only. This reduces the risk of such content being exploited by nefarious users.
Much as governments and internet businesses can try to help minimize the risks that come with sharenting, they cannot feasibly displace the primary role that parents will continue to play in exercising their children’s privacy rights. In that regard, education has a very big role to play. Parents need to be educated about the security risks and implications for their children’s privacy rights when they share online. However, they may not be well placed to find out about all the dangers on their own. Therefore, in addition to taking direct measures to better safeguard children’s privacy rights, governments and internet businesses should devote even more attention to helping bridge the gap so parents have enough information to truly act in their children’s best interest.