Raffi is the legendary children's singer of "Bananaphone," but right now his crusade is to keep kids safe from cellphones -- and iPads and computer that connect to what he's dubbed the "darkweb."
As anyone who follows @Raffi_RC on twitter already knows, the B.C. troubadour is a prolific tweeter on topics ranging from baby belugas to federal politics to the Vancouver Canucks. But as much Raffi Cavoukian is an old-school folkie, he's also an adopter of new technologies. The 2012 cyberbullying-related suicide of Amanda Todd, however, opened up his eyes to the dangers lurking online.
And so the self-described "tech enthusiast," who recently returned to performing and is playing Toronto's Roy Thompson Hall on Feb. 1, wrote a book called Lightweb Darkweb, as a warning to parents about the Internet's hidden dangers and the need for government and corporate intervention to "reform social media before it re-forms us."
Over the phone from his home on Saltspring Island, Raffi and I spoke about children, technology, parental responsibility and the fine line between regulating and censoring the Internet. And, of course, we discussed his musical legacy as perhaps the greatest children's singer of our time. (At least that's what my beluga-loving four-year-old son, Emile, thinks, and he's, like, a total music snob.)
So I'm 38 from the West Coast with hippie parents.
In other words, 100 per cent your original target demographic. Now I have a son of my own, so obviously we play a lot of your music. But as a relatively new parent, and a music journalist by trade, what I've discovered is that most children's music isn't very good. What do you think it is about your songs that have made it so enduring for so long?
I used to think it was my argyle socks, but I haven’t worn those for a long time, so it can't be that. (Laughs.) You know, I'm just honoured that the songs have this longevity. But there was a freshness about it all for me; I used my folk-singer's chops and had some great musicians playing and singing with me -- Ken Whiteley and a number of musical greats including Bruce Cockburn and others played on these albums. And the first four albums were recorded by none other than Daniel Lanois (producer of U2's "The Joshua Tree," among other classic albums.) Are you aware of that?
Yeah, his studio is actually a couple block from my house.
Dan was a big part of the early success… if you listen to those they sound wonderful, right? So there were a number of things, but I think in the end it comes down to [that] the songs are singable, they feel like -- you know -- there's a tone of respect for the child, as an audience, and that word 'respect' has been the prime value in all my work for kids throughout the decades has been respect for the child, as a whole person. So when I made music for the age of your Emile, I gave it my utmost consideration.
The feeling that I get from what you do but also, say, Pixar movies, is that it’s just you're making a great song that happens appeal to children. As opposed to some people that try to make cultural products for children and try to imagine what they would like, and then it comes off either overly cloying or insulting.
I was guided by three educators -- one was my kindergarten teacher wife at the time and our close friends who were also primary teachers. And they were compassionate teachers who guided me well on the song selection and the tone and so on, but I recall there was, when I was going to do a sequel -- more singable songs -- there was a conversation with some record label in Toronto, the guy there was trying to get me to do it with them and he was saying, 'Oh kids love rock, we should really do more rock!' And I just about laughed, because that's not how you make great music, following an assumption like that, kids like a lot of things.
Kids have a lot better and more sophisticated tastes than people give them credit for. What do you think is the lasting legacy of songs like "Baby Beluga?"
I'm careful not to make assumptions about my fans. There are between 30 or 40 million "Beluga grads" in the U.S. and Canada who've grown up with my music. But I don't ever assume that their politics would be this or that. I'm grateful for the feedback that I do get from fans, who quite love that little white whale on the go and it's meant a lot to them in over the years. Maybe it's been a metaphor in some ways -- "swim wild and free to your true nature."
But at the same time I just wrote a book on social media reform called "Lightweb Darkweb" and I happen to know that Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, who I take to task in my book, he is one of the "Beluga" grads, as well. I know this from his father who told me this on Twitter, so that's a prime example -- you just don't know where people are at.
Tell me how Amanda Todd inspired you to write this book.
Well, she changed my life -- by taking her own, unfortunately. That very moving video that she made a month before she took her life touched millions around the world and I was one of them. And I felt that I had to respond very strongly to what is an unacceptable situation with social media being unsafe for young users and it's still unsafe. Not enough has happened in the time since she died, the sexual predator who blackmailed her and tormented her has still not been identified if you can believe that, Joshua.
That's what blows me away about that story. Not the cyber bullying, because the cyber bullying is a variation on bullying that has happened for a long time. It's the way that the pictures were taken and spread in the first place, the sexual exploitation and online "sextortion" rings, and the police unable to do anything.
So it's unacceptable. Totally unacceptable. I co-wrote, along with Sandy Garossino of Vancouver, an open letter to Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg, the letter was signed by people like Amanda Todd's mother Carol, it was signed by Kim Campbell, our former Prime Minister, and hundreds of others and we received no response whatsoever. In fact, I don't see Facebook doing enough to ensure tragedies like that don't happen again. And I think that's a shame.
So let's start at the top. Obviously, the bottom level is parents. What does the government need to do to protect kids?
I want to answer your question with questions.
Why is social media exempt from the most reasonable precautions we take in society to protect on another? For example, online, using social media, you can be unidentified, you can hide behind anonymity, you can hurl all kinds of insults at people behind this shield of anonymity. You can't do that in real life. Why should you be able to do that online? It makes no sense to me. Where is the CRTC in regulating social media? We do call it "media," and the CRTC does regulate media in Canada.
But not the Internet.
Why does it get off scot-free from any consideration of the most reasonable regulations? Why should the world of sexually explicit websites, that we call pornography, why should that surprise 10-years-olds who are not looking for it? Why can't it be an 18 years and older registered use aspect of the Internet. There are so many things we can do to correct a situation that is really indefensible, if you think about it.
If we put children, our respect and our love for them, if we put them first -- not the dollars that are made from all the over sharing that is pushed on to users by these social media platforms -- if children’s interests came first, I think we could make a number of good changes. But it'll take political will and I ask those questions: why do we let people get away with things online that we would never tolerate in real life? And I think politicians need to answer those questions.
The issue is freedom of speech.
Freedom of Speech comes with the responsibilities that go with that right. It's not an absolute right, never was.
Q&A continues after slideshow
So what do you say when the countries that do regulate the Internet are countries like China, where they are using it to censor.
I think that's a legit concern and a shield can work both ways. A shield for anonymity can enable the worst behaviors and then can also protect people where they need that protection. I'm not the most sophisticated thinker on the issue of ID verification, but I do know that if we take it seriously and understand the need for it, those who are closer to how this is done can hopefully weigh-in. You can't use a credit card without giving all kinds of information of who you are, right? You can't use PayPal without doing the same thing. Why should you just be able to go online and do whatever you want hiding behind anonymity? It doesn't make sense to me.
I say that with full respect to those in lands where they are oppressed and they appreciate the freedom of saying the most democratic things without being oppressed. But these days, I don't know, maybe it comes down to a choice between conflicting interests.
There are also issues of shields intended to protect children that end up blocking sites like Planned Parenthood or sites about homosexual issues and things like that.
These are not easy questions to sort through but we must sort through them. And what doesn't work for me is that is the Internet is largely [a] lawless place and that doesn't make any sense to me. It will never be perfect, even with regulations, there will always be some complaints and some trade-offs but I think we’re going to need them, we're going to need some regulations at some point.
Kids were an after-thought when it came to the Internet. Safety was an afterthought -- safety of young users -- so that's why in the book I push for safety by design. And I say the onus lies with social media platforms to make their services safe, whereas right now it's "user beware" and that’s simply not good enough. It doesn't work because you can educate yourself about the parallels of being online but if you make one mistake it can really hurt you. And parents don’t have enough time and enough information or enough wherewithal to keep up with all the changes that they have to deal with all the time about privacy settings and default this and that, it’s an almost impossible job for a parent to do. So wouldn't it just be better if we knew that our kids could use the Internet with little reservation?
Obviously my kid doesn't use the Internet yet because he's four and I'm certainly wary of what happens when he gets older, but at the same time I kind of accept a lot of parental responsibility as far as this goes.
Oh sure, and so you should, yeah.
People who don't have kids are like, "why should I have my information censored?"
It's not censorship first of all, it's reasonable accommodations of citizens in a society. Doesn't matter whether you have kids or not, we live in a community; we don't live as isolated individuals. And we are human and to be human is to care, it's just that simple.
But obviously a 36-year-old is interested in different things than a six-year-old and should that 36-year-old have restricted access because a six-year-old might…
No, I have not espoused that actually -- with ID verification if you’re older than 18 then you have a choice as to what you do. But, until then some restrictions to access make a lot of sense for those under 18.
So what are your thoughts on ID verification? How would that even work?
I don't know how that would work. I'm not an expert in these things, as I've said. What I'm trying to do Joshua, in my book, is deepen the conversation with some questions that perhaps haven't been asked and with some child-honouring perspective that I think society ought to take very seriously.
Without it, I think we're failing our kids. You know you would never open your front door to every single person in the community, you just wouldn't because you know that that wouldn't be wise, there are strangers with all sorts of notions. So why would you inadvertently allow that to happen through the Internet for your child?