November 7, 2021
The disappearance of four-year-old Cleo Smith from a camping ground evoked the most potent of parental nightmares: the snatching of one’s child by a stranger. Her rescue 18 days later by police made headlines on the other side of the world.
However, contrary to popular imaginings, children left alone outdoors have seldom been safer thanks to technology including video surveillance and mobile phones. For children growing up in the age of ubiquitous connectivity, the most dangerous place to be can be sitting alone in their own bedroom.
In January 2007, Steve Jobs casually proclaimed he was reinventing the mobile phone. He neglected to tell us Apple was also reinventing childhood with a mobile computer and video screen that would become so cheap it could be stuffed into Christmas stockings. Today, more than 90 per cent of Australian teenagers and two-thirds of primary school children have their own smart devices, enabling them to be more or less permanently online.
That screen time can be harmful to kids is not in dispute. What we don’t yet know is how badly or permanently our children are damaged from the absence of physical activity, exposure to cyber-bullying, early introduction to bizarre pornography or contact with strangers.
Nor do parents yet have adequate tools to monitor their children’s behaviour. In the real world, common law and common sense recognise that parents bear the primary responsibility for the protection of children. In the cyber world, the parental duty of care is restricted by the actions of the two technology companies that between them control 100 per cent of the digital platform market. In addition to everything else for which we have come to rely upon Apple and Google, we now trust them with babysitting.
The smart thing about the iPhone was not the device itself but Apple’s iOS software, which turned the cell phone into a sophisticated computer with unimagined potential. Its secrets are more tightly held than the recipe for Coca-Cola and ensure iOS can only run on Apple devices. Roughly half the mobile phones and tablets in Australia were made by Apple, a company that has found ways to clip the ticket on virtually every click you make, including the sale of the digital newspaper in which you may be reading this column.
When the iPhone went on sale in the US in June 2007, the word “app” was only used by tech-heads. It would be another three years before it was declared the 2010 word of the year by the American Dialect Society, beating Cookie Monster’s “om, nom, nom, nom, nom”. At first, Apple decreed the only apps allowed would be its own. When it opened its platform to third-party developers in October 2007, the only store allowed to supply them was Apple’s own App Store.
Google’s Android system, which controls the other half of the Australian market, is available on phones made by multiple manufacturers. But whether the phone is made by Samsung, OnePlus or Vivo, the apps are sold through the Google Play store.
This incredible concentration of market power in the hands of two big tech companies is one of the biggest challenges facing competition regulators, not just in Australia but worldwide, since the two control the download of almost every mobile app almost everywhere except China. Their role as gatekeepers is critical to the modern economy and the way we have come to live our lives. In the second quarter of 2020, apps downloaded in Australia exceeded 200 million for the first time.
Worldwide, there are now more than five million apps available catering to almost every human need from monitoring sheep to watching live porn. They enable those who want to hook up with almost anyone from Uber drivers to casual sex partners. There are apps that let you transfer your wages into an interest-bearing bank account and others that help you fritter it away at the blackjack table. The age of consent to enter this wondrous world is 13, the age at which Google and Apple let you have your own account. Younger children must access apps on the family account.
The age-appropriate restrictions on apps were found to be wholly inadequate by the Australian Consumer and Competition Authority, which released a report on digital platform services in March. It found that of the top 1000 casino apps on the App Store, 176 were rated appropriate for children four years and above.
The Google Play store was found to be carrying dating apps marketed at children and teenagers, such as meet-up app Teenage Chat & Dating Pro, which was until recently rated at 3-plus. StreamKar, which enables live streaming and chatting with strangers, is rated at 12-plus. Episode (rated 12-plus) and Hometown Romance Game (rated 9-plus), include suggestive themes reasonable people would consider inappropriate.
Parents might rightly ask if there is an app that will allow them to monitor their children’s online activity, just as businesses can download tools that give them third-party control over the online activity of their staff.
A Menzies Research Centre report published this week finds tools that allow end-point security to be activated on mobile devices and device-management systems that enable them to be controlled remotely are freely available to business customers, but not to developers of parental control apps. The report found Apple’s desire to protect its proprietary software has stifled competition. In 2018, it systematically removed 11 leading third-party parental control apps from its platform. Restrictions coincided with the launch of Apple’s own control software, Screen Time. Attempts by independent software developers to develop apps using the capability of Screen Time have been frustrated by compliance.
The architects of Australia’s competition regulation framework could never have envisaged this brave new online commercial world, nor that a digitised world would be so vulnerable to market dominance. The framework clearly needs rebooting. Two decades ago, the Howard government appointed an ombudsman to deal with the deregulated telecommunications industry. A similar complaints tzar may well be required for digital platforms.
The Morrison government led the world in challenging the social media giants to protect the copyright of news. Another fight with big tech seems inevitable if we are to protect the sanctity of childhood.
Nick Cater is executive director of the Menzies Research Centre. The MRC report, Empowering Australian Parents to Keep Their Children Safe Online, is available at menziesrc.org
This article first appeared in The Australian on 8 November 2021 and is republished with permission.