As the One Laptop Per Child organization announces that it will begin mass production of its flagship XO laptop, a recent report from the official News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) claims that children who have been given OLPC’s XO laptops, are using them to surf pornographic websites. In response, OLPC officials say they will now be installing filters that prevent such activity.
Alright, so before you get the idea that I want children in Nigeria and other nations exposed to porn via their brand new XO computers, I don’t.
However, this move on the part of the OLPC team appears to run contrary to their stated objectives regarding the use of their laptops. According to the organization’s site:
"The XO Laptop will bring children technology as a means to freedom and empowerment. The success of the project in the face of overwhelming global diversity will only be possible by embracing openness and by providing the laptop’s users and developers a profound level of freedom.
As the children grow and pursue new ideas, the software and the tools need to be able to grow with them and provide a gateway to other technology […]
Our commitment to software freedom gives children the opportunity to use their laptops on their own terms. While we do not expect every child to become a programmer, we do not want any ceiling imposed on those children who choose to modify their machines."
Apparently children are "given the opportunity to use their laptops on their own terms" so long as those terms don’t contradict the political or moral positions of the regimes that govern their country.
Filtering technology is unreliable. Porn filters that are intended to block harmful adult sites, often end up blocking important scientific, health or medical related information too.
Of greater concern to me is next logical step in this scenario: filtering of ideas. It’s not a stretch to image what might happen when the governments of these emerging nations decide that access to sites that promote democracy or encourage free speech must be prevented as well, citing that these represent an equal or greater threat than porn.
On a supposedly "open" platform, the walls appear to be closing in.
And while many of us can agree that porn and kids should not mix, what happens when the ‘kids’ grow up? When do these inidividuals get to start making the choices about what kind of content they wish to see? Perhpas the hope is that by that time, these students will be able to afford their own laptop; one that is unhobbled by the shackles of their childhood machine. And what of the educators who will be equipped with OLPCs? Will their searches for content be hampered by filters too?
Your turn. Should these machines – that are intended to be empowering and liberating – be shipped with software that imposes limits on how they can be used?
July 25, 8:48 PM. Update.
Writing for a blog is a little like getting up on soapbox in the middle of town and declaring your opinions out loud for all to hear. So, when you take on a controversial topic, you had better make sure you’re on solid ground, as there will be no shortage of folks who will let you know if they think you’re full of it.
When I initially wrote the above piece, I felt certain that *any* kind of pre-installed filter was undesirable as it would hamper the ability of the users to get the most out of their laptops.
But, after listening to the views expressed below, I’m forced to admit that my reasoning was at least partially flawed. When it comes to keeping our children (by our I mean the world’s) from harmful material online, it’s a case of – as Mara so succinctly put it below – something is better than nothing.
If the result is the inability to access certain legitimate information, the I suppose that’s the price one pays.
To those who disagreed so articulately with my position, thank you, your words made an impact.
To those who expressed support, thank you as well, every side of a debate needs a voice.