Law in the Internet Society

The Unresolvable Dilemma of Christmas Gifting

-- By EungyungEileenChoi - 05 Dec 2019

My daughter's wishlist

Having put all the trick-or-treating and thankfulness behind me, there's still the highlight (at least for my 8-year-old daughter) of this season left - Christmas! For the last couple of years, the one and only item on my bigger daughter's wishlist was a smartphone. What mom would not want to see the big bright smile on her child's face when she unwraps the gift and discovers that it is exactly what she prayed for. Unfortunately (or fortunately), I was a lawyer practicing in the area of personal information protection and I just couldn't bring it over my conscience to buy my own daughter a device that would make it possible for others to collect her personal data on a real-time basis and most likely transfer them to the rest of the world. After receiving rather analogous gifts for three years, she finally seems to recognize the cruel reality that Santa will not let her have a smartphone for whatever reason it may be. She struck the smartphone from the list and instead, she put on: "Fitbit". Sadly enough, a fitness tracker is just as unacceptable to me for similar reasons and Santa will have to ignore her wishes once again.

But why?

While it is only natural for me to withhold any mobile device from my daughter as long as I can, it seems almost like a 'mission impossible' to make her understand why.

It is very difficult to explain the potential harmfulness of the internet in a way that feels like a real-life danger to her. Yes, I tried it all. Honey, they will collect every bit of information from you - it is not just how many steps you walked. Your pulse, your heart rate, where you went and where you're right now - 24/7, 365." Every time she counters my argument with "Yeah, but who would do that and why?" Behavior targeted marketing seems not to be a concern of hers since she doesn't have any money that she can actually spend on her own. She finds it even helpful since it may remind her mom who is Ms. Forget-Everything-Every time of the grocery needed for dinner that she left in the cart and forgot to order. Behaviorally stimulated electoral decisions? It will be more than a decade until she casts her first vote on anyone. Police or other agencies tracking you down? She doesn't intend to commit any crimes. Besides, shouldn't the police be able to find the criminals? The only thing I was able to scare her with so far was the hypothetical situation where a hacker could obtain and use the information to kidnap her in order to demand a ransom. However, I really hate to pull that trigger because the story is so terrifying to her that she cannot sleep at night.

Even if I succeeded in scaring the hell out of her with the kidnapping hacker story, the real difficulty arises from the plain fact that there are just too many children with mobile devices out there. We moved from South Korea where most first-graders were wearing a "Kid's Phone" that featured instant messaging and position tracking - supposedly for the safety of the children and more realistically for the mental comfort of anxious first-time school parents. As my daughter advanced to the second grade, the rate of children with mobile devices kept going up until my daughter was the only one (yes, you heard me right) in her class without a phone. I see a little bit less of that here in New York but still, there are enough iPhones and Fitbits in the classroom for my daughter to question how so many kids actually carry these dangerous things around and nothing ever happens to them. Plus, it is always a pain almost heartbreaking if your child claims that she feels left out because she doesn't have something that the majority has.

Struggling to be a GOOD mom

What would my mother do?

Whenever I face a parenting problem, I like to imagine what MY mom would've done. The answer here is rather easy. She would've never bought a smartphone for me. She was always wise enough to keep me from anything that could've distracted me from my studies. I was not even allowed to watch TV dramas as a student - only news and sports games. On top of that, she has no trust in mobile technology and the internet. She doesn't shop online, no internet banking, no SNS and whatsoever. More importantly, she's a woman of strong will and is capable of resisting when she feels something is wrong even if others don't.

What can I do?

As much as I admire my mom, I'm a person with less determination. Also, times have changed. Someday, my daughter will inevitably be exposed to the internet world no matter how hard I try. I would not want her to enter this world unaware of its consequences and without means to protect herself against them. So, here's what I'm going to do. First, I will buy another present that will be as much appreciated as a Fitbit by her for this Christmas. It might seem like a difficult task, but if you truly love your child and observe her closely, it should be possible. Second, I will warn her and try to keep her aware of the privacy concerns. Third, when the time comes for her to own a mobile device, I'll teach her some tricks I learned in this class to protect her privacy such as using a VPN or encryption software. Lastly, as a lawyer, I will advocate for a regulation that deems behavior data collection as unacceptable and unconsentable. However, since the current data regulation is so centered around the consent of a user, this may take a long time. In the meanwhile, I believe users should at least be given the option to track their steps and sleeping habits and maybe share them with family and close friends for motivation without being forced to surrender their data to the developers or anyone else.

Yes, I think this is an overwhelming problem. I only happened to duck it by not having any children. I deeply appreciate the quandary. By definition, because I am not a parent, society uniformly agrees that I am not competent to discuss parenting questions. But there are a couple of ideas that I think might help you to make your essay even better than it is now.

First, I think you might want to ask what would be a good form of relationship to computers for your daughter to have. Those of us who have been worrying about this problem for most of our lifetimes—long before anyone else knew the problem could exist—became aware of the problem as youngsters precisely because we had strong and—to our minds—beautiful relations with computers that we were afraid would be corrupted so that others couldn't be free. You might, for example, take a look at Sherry Turkle's first masterpiece of a book, The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit, which is more brilliantly about that than anything else written by the human race so far.

Second, I think you might ask about how to teach your daughter not aversively, but positively. At eight it becomes possible to talk to a child about values, about why we believe things and why our beliefs are important to us. That our beliefs involve our relations with things is one of the easiest ways in to that conversation: why we do what we do with the things in our lives is a good topic of sporadic conversation. That our tech also shows or conflicts with our values was what your mother meant about education and distractions, after all, in the realm of how to use television.

Fear of loss of privacy is an inevitable, eventually primary reason for caring about privacy. In a few years, as she goes through the process of acquiring a self—that is, an independent relation to society—your daughter will read some science fiction, or maybe 1984, and she will acquire that fear, without the demon hacker kidnapper you are sorry to have summoned up. But by the time she gets there, and needs also an SSH proxy and indeed a FreedomBox of her own, she can have built for herself a relationship to computing, and a system of values that is related to her computing, that will tell her exactly why her privacy and her political freedom are connected, and why she cares. She would hardly be the only 15-year-old free software zealot I've ever met.


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r4 - 11 Jan 2020 - 14:29:14 - EbenMoglen
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