By Catherine L’Ecuyer, article published in El País on June 11, 2018
Proposed legislation in Spain would lower the age requirement for registering on these websites without parental controls
France has just announced that it will fulfill its electoral promise to ban phones from schools. It’s remarkable that such a promise could bring a politician to power these days. On the other hand, in Spain, a bill was just introduced that would lower the age of consent for the processing of personal information from 14 to 13 (and thus also for registering oneself for a social network) despite the fact that the European legislative framework recommends the age of 16 for its member states. Some speak of a “lost generation,” while others assure us that “technology is neutral and the impact depends on how it is used.”
Is technology neutral? Let’s examine a “neutral” technology: a refrigerator. Let’s assume that each time we open the refrigerator, a light goes on inside. Will we return to open it several times to see if the light turns on? We don’t do this, because it’s predictable—provided the light bulb doesn’t burn out. The light does not provoke fascination, nor addiction, because there is no dopamine release in the brain when we open a fridge. That being said, imagine if each time we opened a “smartfridge,” it gave us a live news feed about a volcanic eruption in a nearby city, displayed real-time statistics on people who are thinking of us, told us whether these thoughts were positive or not, and furthermore showed us different foods with impeccable presentation from which we could choose to eat immediately. How many times would we open the fridge every day? Do we think that using this refrigerator would have no impact on our eating habits? On our weight? On the amount of time we spend in the kitchen? On how much time we no longer dedicate to other activities?
Marshall McLuhan said that the belief that technology is neutral is “the numb stance of the technological idiot.” Harsh words, but curiously relevant, since Mark Zuckerberg confessed in one of the most notable events of his endless apology tour, his appearance before the United States’ Congress, that Facebook was created to be neutral, but “it’s clear now that we didn’t do enough to prevent its tools from being used for harm as well.” The solution? The hiring of 20,000 people to review our Facebook pages with a fine-tooth comb and eliminate content considered “unsafe to the community.” And very recently, Facebook surprised its users once more with the announcement of the hiring of “news credibility specialists,” a fun euphemism for “news report editors.” A heavy blow from a platform that has always declared itself “neutral.” How does it decide whether a post is safe or not? What criterion does it use? Neutrality. The almighty neutrality of a company that attributes to itself sufficient infallibility to stamp content with the seal of the nihil obstat, content that is created and consumed by 2.2 billion users—no less than a third of the global population. No religion, no organization in the world currently has so many adepts susceptible to the influence of the unquestioning dogma of “neutrality.” A dogma with so many holes in it that it is beginning to turn into a recurring nightmare for Zuckerberg.
If we thought that the impact of technology depended on how we use it, it is because we’re forgetting that nothing in life is free. When we use a tool, we have to pay a price for it. However, we are often not aware of this, in spite of all the consent and user agreements with fine print that we have signed with a tap of the finger. In the case of social media, you don’t pay with money; you pay with yourself. Not only by dedicating hours of your precious attention to it. It goes much deeper than that. Platforms that offer content on social networks, or that permit users to share it, are not in the business of delivering content for nothing to their users. They are in the business of delivering users to those who sponsor their platforms and content. Thus, the currency used by social networks is the user. It is you, or it is your son or daughter. And soon, they could be monetizing your 13-year-old in this way, without your consent.
And if we think that the impact is minimal, let us remember that a 30 second advertisement at the Super Bowl is worth more than two million dollars. Companies wouldn’t spend this money if it did not have a direct and immediate impact on the consumption or the appreciation of their products or brands. The attention and private information of a user is a precious good that has never before been the object of such economic and political power. So much so, that, as we now know, a political consulting firm—Cambridge Analytica—made illicit use of the information of more than 50 million Facebook users, and thus managed to influence the results of the American elections and change the course of the history of democracy.
Some time ago, Facebook admitted to the exchange of user data among at least 60 companies, including Apple, Amazon, Samsung, and Microsoft. Perhaps this is why the young founder of Facebook has his camera and microphone jack covered with opaque tape? Can we then reasonably assume that a 13-year-old minor has sufficient maturity to consent to activities with such implications?
Some say that if we pull the plug on our children’s Internet access, it is like pulling the plug on them. Can we really defend the neutrality of a technology that we speak of in these terms? For a mind not prepared to use it, technology cannot easily be qualified as “neutral.” And how much less so if it is designed to be addictive. It is true that our children are children of a different time than we were. But if we do not want them to become slaves to the trends and technologies of their time, we must not leave them to fend for themselves. And this means we need laws that do not leave parents out of the picture.
(Co-translation Andrew Sheedy)