Open Letter on the Digital Age of Consent

I was delighted to help put this letter together, calling on the Government to stick with 13 as the ‘Digital Age of Consent’. Great to get support from so many eminent experts and leaders in this field, many thanks to all who put their name below.

Published here on Medium:  Open Letter on the Digital Age of Consent and reproduced in full here:

In relation to the Data Protection Bill, we note that the report of the Joint Committee on Justice and Equality, having studied this issue carefully, recommended setting the digital age of consent at 13. It is therefore of great disappointment to us that parties to that report have now tabled amendments contrary to that recommendation. As such, we call on the Minister and the Government to remain steadfast in their commitment to 13.

With regard to the current situation, Ireland already has a de facto digital age of consent set at 13. As research such as the EU Kids Online Project has shown, we already have many issues with under 13s using online services in spite of this restriction. Setting the digital age of consent at 16 will not solve these issues, in fact, it will only multiply them.

It is worth stressing that the ‘digital age of consent’ is a data protection issue, not a child safety one. Protecting children from targeted advertising is quite different from protecting them from cyberbullying or online predation. Using data protection law to achieve an online safety effect is, in our view, extremely misguided.

In that light, far too much energy has been wasted on this debate when we could have been talking about how to actually protect and educate children about their digital rights. Our children need a proper digital education and we are failing to deliver this.

What this debate has painfully highlighted is how disconnected many parents feel with regard to their children’s online activity. Rather than delivering a knee-jerk response to those fears, the Government should commit to a properly resourced campaign of parental digital education.

Setting the age of consent at 13 would ensure that social media companies continue their efforts to try to make their online spaces safe and appropriate for under 18’s. If the digital age of consent is set to 16, online platforms would be able to argue that their spaces are for adults only, and reduce protections accordingly. Put simply, the higher age gives parents an illusion of control while at the same time letting industry off the hook.

Finally, given how few viable technical solutions to age verification have been proposed during this debate, setting the digital age of consent to 16 will inevitably lead to more young people simply lying about their ages. Whether with or without their parents’ help, this probably the worst first lesson in digital education a child should ever receive. More to the point, this is unlikely to encourage a child to tell their parents if something bad happens to them when online.

As such, we, therefore, urge the Government and the Oireachtas to implement the recommendations of the Joint Committee on Justice and Equality in setting the digital age of consent at 13.

Yours, etc.

Dr Ciarán Mc Mahon, Director, Institute of Cyber Security

Ronan Lupton BL, Internet Content Governance Advisory Group

Ian Power, Executive Director, SpunOut.ie

Harry McCann, Founder, Digital Youth Council

Prof Brian O’Neill, Director of Research, Enterprise and Innovation, Dublin Institute of Technology

Mark Smyth, Senior Clinical Psychologist

Alex Cooney, CEO, CyberSafeIreland

Tanya Ward, CEO, Children’s Rights Alliance

Grainia Long, CEO, ISPCC Childline

Prof Joe Carthy, College Principal and Dean of Science, University College Dublin

Dr James O’Higgins Norman, Director, National Anti-Bullying Research and Resource Centre, Dublin City University

Dr Vincent Mc Darby, Senior Clinical Psychologist

Ian O’Grady, Senior Counselling Psychologist, President-Elect Psychological Society of Ireland.

 

 

Submission on Transparency in Social Media

I am delighted to have been invited to give evidence at a Meeting of Joint Committee on Communications, Climate Action and Environment. Transparency in political social media is of deep importance to democracy.

I was due to appear today, but due to time constraints, that will take place at a later date. This meeting is in relation to Deputy James Lawless’ Social Media Transparency Bill, as well as recent revelations regarding Facebook and Cambridge Analytica.

You can read my full submission here, and the main points of the executive summary are below:

  • Problematic issues in regulation social media have been known for some time, the era of self-regulation must come to an end
  • However, overly simplistic to ‘blame’ the online platforms for this, must be collaborative
  • Problem of fake or automated accounts is vast within social media
  • ‘Viral’ propagation of messages is quite rare, information generally cascades via a traditional ‘broadcast’ model
  • Misinformation not easily corrected, continues to be shared after being debunked
  • Hence easy for adversaries to push disinformation, sowing confusion
  • An environment has developed where it is difficult for citizens to know what is true and trustworthy
  • Politicians must improve own cybersecurity practices as a matter of urgency
  • Much of the content of the Bill has been pre-empted by policy changes by the online platforms in the last six months in political ad transparency
  • However, changes have yet to take effect – urge immediate roll-out here of political advertisement changes
  • While transparency in online political advertising is probably achievable, not clear that making bots illegal is feasible, suggest mandatory labelling by online platforms
  • Urge Government to invest in interdisciplinary research on these topics in local context
  • Urge progress of permanent Electoral Commission to oversee all political advertising
  • Urge Government to consider national factual information/education campaigns on online platforms

 

I will update this page later, once I’ve spoken at the Committee.

System justification and public sector reform: The psychology of the permanent government

Why, perhaps even more noticeably than other election promises, have successive governments’ pledges to reform the public sector, failed? Why, when previously in opposition vociferously calling for changes in practice, do politicians seem to substantially dilute their proposals? What exactly happens to the politicians we elect once they get into government?

In this post I shall outline psychological factors which I believe are at work in this context. At the outset, by ‘public sector reform’, I mean all aspects of the state – not only health, education, and similar departments, but also political reform – so as to encompass the organizational behaviour of every person employed by the state. Thus I am outlining what I believe to be the major psychological processes which militate against a new government’s reform agenda, whatever it may be.

Organisational change

How can ‘the system’ be changed? This is rather unclear theoretically, but we can be sure that it is an emotional, not a logical process. ‘Organisational change management’ is a particular academic subdiscipline in itself which has grown substantially in recent years and is generally applied to private sector enterprises, though we can find some clues for public sector reform also. It is worth noting at the outset, however that it is an area riven with difficulties – a recent review suggests that the organisational change management frequently fails…

…. since what is currently available is a wide range of contradictory and confusing theories and approaches, which are mostly lacking empirical evidence and often based on unchallenged hypotheses regarding the nature of contemporary organisational change management. (By, 2005, p. 378).

… which isn’t exactly encouraging. In practice, we find that organisational change is a very difficult and tiresome process. I’ll try to outline some global themes:-

  • An study of the Italian public sector reform rather simply concluded that a particular set of reforms (namely managerial performance management) regularly failed in several different cases largely because of a lack of “effective understanding of the purpose and the usefulness of the new instrument by key organizational actors” (Azzenone and Palermo, 2011, p. 107)
  • An Israeli study suggests that the single most effect predictor of resistance to organisational change is trust in management (Oreg, 2006).
  • An Australian study suggests that irrational ideas, exacerbated by emotion, increase behavioural intention to resist change (Bovey & Hede, 2001).
  • A New Zealand case study of a failed and expensive attempt to introduce a new information system found that the basic reason for its failure was simply pessimism about the proposed change (Dale & Goldfinch, 2002).
  • A French study of change management identified the lack of inclusion of middle management as problematic for higher management’s implementation of the change process (Fronda & Moriceau, 2008).
  • Another Australian study of improving efficiency in local government is less effective when implemented from a ‘top-down’
    perspective than from a ‘bottom-up’ (Dollery, Crase & O’Keefe, 2005).

In summary, certain questions must be asked of the strategy by which public sector reform has currently been attempted. Chief among these must surely be regarding the level of faith and trust which the employees have in management. Such a question would necessitate genuine consultation with the workforce. In such a process, it would also be advisable to go some length to acknowledging the anxieties and fears of the workforce with regard to their employment, which may go some way to countering pessimism of change.

With public sector reform, the bottom line is: how often, how comprehensively and how honestly are lower levels consulted? This is the basic point – the management of expectations and emotions. People must be consulted on changes which they perceive will affect their lives.

System justification

However, these aren’t the core psychological issues. Largely the work of John Jost at NYU, system justification theory essentially holds that people will work to maintain the status quo, which is not in itself surprising, but will also do so when it is not in their own interest – it is the “…process by which existing social arrangements are legitimized, even at the expense of personal and group interest” (Jost & Banaji, 1994, p. 2). Jost has continued to develop this vein of research in explaining how disadvantaged and minority groups will support social systems which are clearly not in their favour, but in our current context we can see a straightforward application of these ideas – notice how often phrases such as ‘that’s the way things are done’, ‘that’s just the way it is’ are used in the context of the civil service. These ideas are at the heart of system justification theory – the rationalisation of the status quo.

In this regard there is a human psychological preference for a system, institution, procedure, outcome, practice or behaviour which is currently in place, and will regard it as fair and legitimate, even when there are good reasons to believe otherwise. In fact, those who are most disadvantaged by a system are often the strongest supporters of it.

But the bottom line is really that the longer that a person is part of the ‘system’ the more likely they are to support it and as such, it is naive to expect that even a reforming or young career politician will be able to affect much change once elected, as they simply become part of the system and working in and with it. We should also not be too surprised that, in reactance to this effect, that politicians hire friends and family as advisors and staff – this is an attempt to counterbalance the effect of being outnumbered by the civil service system.

Jost’s (2002) work has also shown how the use of stereotypes are regularly used, often interchangeably, to support the argument that the system cannot be changed – think of the stereotypical picture of the public sector worker, and think again of your own opinion of changing the system. Even though we might be the ones most disadvantaged by the current state of affairs, we fall back on clichés and heuristics in returning to the conclusion that nothing can be done about it. Consequently, when reforms fail, for the reasons mentioned earlier, these opinions of ours are reinforced – that that’s the way things are, and nothing can be done about it. As such, changing the way the public sector works is always going to be an uphill battle because of these deep-seated psychological factors – and that’s even before we get into other ideas like our overt desire for, but ultimate rejection of, creative ideas.

Interestingly though, what Jost has found though, is that once a social change is portrayed as inevitable, that even the most strident opponents of the change rapidly come to terms with it. This is a useful observation for those implementing change, as it means that while there may be resistance to ideas presented fait accompli, it is unlikely to last. It does, however, present us with a problem, based somewhat on the realisation that the above relationship is one that is understood by certain politicians and decision-makers – they know that if a reform is presented as fully decided, and inevitable, people will go along with it eventually – indeed, this is often lauded as decisive decision-making. Hence, this ‘route one’ method of reform is favoured by politicians, as the changes made will come to pass and eventually be accepted, once they are presented as unavoidable.

However, such a process is not dependent on the actual quality of the decision or reform being implemented – it does not relate to success or viability (decentralisation, anyone?). From the preceding review of organisational change, we know that successful reforms must be developed in consultation with those who they will effect, which will inevitably take time. Such a lengthy process is precisely the opposite of the sort of behaviour which politicians like to be seen to take – the dithering report commissioner. Without getting too much into the psychology of leadership and decision-making, we are therefore in something of a time-bind when it comes to public sector reform, even before election cycles come into play: act quickly, gain acceptance quickly, appear decisive, but run the risk of making huge mistakes, or act slowly, in consultation, probably making better reforms, but appear as a ditherer. In addition, as politicians know, there exists a certain goodwill window of opportunity for new governments to implement reforms easily and in good faith, but once that closes, reforms prove much more difficult. How the current administration has utilised these features of the psycho-political timescape remains to be seen.

 

Permanent government

I would like to close on an optimistic note, but that isn’t exactly easy. As I hope I have outlined in some detail, there are considerable organisational obstacles and psychological factors which will militate against public sector reform, in any context. The system will basically react against any attempt to change it, having the advantages of holding the territory and demoralised opponents, as Sun Tzu might say. I can’t see any but I do think that it is essential that policy-making diversifies beyond political party headquarters. Ireland needs more independent think tanks and research institutes, and possibly a place for the citizens’ assemblies of the kind that David Farrell et al are fond of in that regard also. Ultimately, the only solution lies in hard work, good research and open minds.

 

Questions, comments and suggestions for future posts of this kind all warmly encouraged,

 

 

Ciarán