Comment: Mobile industry’s image problem

3 Mar 2004

It is good to see Irish mobile operators and handset manufacturers haven’t been slow about addressing the thorny area of unsuitable content passing over mobile phones – an issue with the potential to seriously set back the progress of digital media if it’s mishandled.

Thankfully all concerned parties seem to be having sensible discussions so far and are making steady progress in developing a workable code of practice. An education campaign aimed primarily at younger users will be one of the practical steps to address concerns and help to promote safe and responsible use of mobile technology.

I can’t help thinking though that we’re just one public outcry away from having the issue blow up in everyone’s faces. Already this year an image of an under-age schoolgirl was widely circulated over camera phones in Cork and Kerry. It made front-page news; similar stories would doubtless do so again and with them would follow the usual calls for censorship or curtailment of mobile technology.

There’s a real danger that in the rush to be seen to be taking action, mobile operators could then find themselves being forced into keeping promises that are technically impossible to deliver upon. All it takes is some opportunist to stand up in the Dáil or in the full glare of the popular media to decry these newfangled gadgets and we’re off on another witch-hunt, with modern technology cast yet again in the role of the bogeyman.

The fact is that it’s impossible for software to identify any image as being pornographic. An expert in mobile technology John Whelan, director of Alatto, who has worked in Japan (where camera phones have been around for three years) and Ireland, testifies to this. That’s so crucial to the entire debate that it bears repeating: you can’t pass camera phone pictures through a system and expect it to tell you if an image is sexually explicit.

There are several technical reasons as to why this is so, but the main one is actually common sense. Many pictures snapped with camera phones are of people, so it follows that flesh tones make up the bulk of the phone’s colour palette. Short of having every single picture inspected visually before being passed from sender to receiver – no trivial task – there is no way to distinguish between a picture of a newborn baby and something altogether less innocent.

This is not to say nothing can be done; Alatto come up with technology that in essence creates a sheltered form of communication. This offers the best of both worlds, allowing children to have mobile phones but parents can set limits on the people – close friends and family, for instance – they are able to call or receive calls from. It’s the 21st century equivalent of telling kids not to talk to strangers.

Alatto, which developed the technology, is in early discussions with Irish mobile operators and the system may be in testing later this year. I fear it is not headline-grabbing stuff, but we should be grateful that some positive action is being taken before the issue comes into the wider public consciousness. Otherwise I worry that the stampede to the high moral ground will only drag the agenda in one direction – a pretty well-worn path at that. Laying the blame at technology’s door and then expecting that technology will come up with a solution is the most narrow-minded way of tackling the problem. As usual, the knee-jerk reaction is to police the technology, when really it’s the users we should be watching out for. Technology is only ever a tool; it’s what we choose to do with it that will fall into the camp of ‘good’ or ‘bad’.

When the spotlight is on, mobile companies will find it much harder to make the case for their technology in any reasonable, rational way. At the moment, they advocate personal responsibility for using the technology – a sensible approach under normal circumstances. But take an emotive issue such as child protection, add a pinch of techno-fear and mix well for widespread hysteria. Let’s be clear about this; child pornography is sickening and efforts to stop its spread are welcome and necessary, but this doesn’t have to be at the expense of advances in technology that has a wider benefit.

By Gordon Smith