Time to redefine and de-silo online safety efforts

I’m in Washington DC to attend the Family Online Safety Institute’s (FOSI) annual conference that gets underway on Wednesday. This year’s theme is Redefining Internet Safety, and while I don’t yet know how others will redefine it, I do know that the professionals involved in helping people be safer and more secure online have a lot of work to do. I’m one of them as co-director of ConnectSafely.org and founder ofSafeKids.com.

Camps need to merge

For one thing, we need to de-silo our approach. For the longest time the Internet safety community has been divided into three camps: child safety, privacy and security.

Safety, Privacy and Security

In the nineties, the child safety folks focused mostly on the dangers of pornography and predators but – based on research about real risks – the messages have evolved to focus on cyberbullying and harassment; reputation management (including sexting), and teaching children how to protect their personal information.

The privacy advocates have also had to evolve their messaging as threats have changed. These days we need to worry about the vast quantities of information that are collected – and sometimes shared – by our mobile devices including location, our contacts, our calls, our emails and text messages and the apps we use and websites we visit. We are also dealing with tracking and profiling, including third party tracking technologies that know what we’re doing and share it for marketing purposes – albeit usually without sharing personally identifiable information.

Security has also evolved. Security experts are now less worried about hackers wiping out your data and more worried about them emptying your back accounts. Mobile has also changed the security landscape, though most mobile phone users do little or nothing to protect their mobile devices. We’ve also seen the rise of “social engineering” whereby instead of breaking into your machine, a hacker will trick you into revealing usernames, passwords, credit card numbers and other information they can use to exploit you.

The reason I think it’s time to de-silo these fields is because all of these threats are related. We can no longer talk about “Internet safety” without talking about privacy and security. And even the line between privacy and security is blurred now since privacy leaks can lead to security vulnerabilities and vice versa.

Kids and adults are in this together

Another silo that needs to be challenged is the distinction between adult and child protection. Several years ago, John Morris who was then with the Center for Democracy and Technology and is now Associate Administrator and Director of Internet Policy for the National Telecommunications and Infrastructure Administration (NTIA), commented at a FOSI event that if a policy is necessary to protect kids, it’s probably also necessary to protect adults. He wasn’t arguing for more regulations, but more thought about whether children actually benefit from many of the policies and regulations that have been put in place specifically for their benefit. Speaking for myself (and not necessarily Morris), the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) is a case in point. It’s intended to protect children from revealing personal information to marketers, but its impact is to prevent children under 13 from using social media, or to lie about their age.

The broader question is not to focus on the age of the person who may be at risk, but the risk itself, whether it’s marketers harassing you to purchase their products or online trolls and bullies harassing you just because they can. And don’t think that cyberbullying and harassment is mostly a youth problem. A recent Pew study found that 40 percent of adult Internet users had experienced harassment, which is a higher percentage than youth who had experienced cyberbullying. Harassment and bullying are somewhat different but the general conclusion remains that age is by no means a protective barrier against online harms. Whether you’re a young adult woman at greater risk of sexual harassment, a senior citizen at greater risk of financial exploitation, a business person at greater risk of a data breach or a child at risk of cyberbullying, the fact is that we’re all in this together.

Rights too

We must also consider youth rights as well as protection. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child correctly focuses on both children’s safety and children’s right of free expression and participation and the Internet safety movement should do likewise. We can and must find ways to help children protect themselves from harm while expanding — not restricting — their right to access and contribute to media, including social media.


The Internet safety field also needs to look at the antidotes. For the longest time there has been a call for Internet safety education but – based on a study conducted by Crimes Against Children Research Center, the leading school-based programs that they evaluated had failed to move the needle. That doesn’t mean we give up, but it does mean that we look at research (including some of the proposals from that study) to inform future educational endeavors. And, speaking of de-siloing, we no longer need to separate Internet safety education from other life skills. Yes, the Internet does pose some special risks when it comes to privacy, security and safety – but the solutions are not all that different than protecting ourselves from other risks, including thinking critically before you act, not believing everything you see or hear and understanding that our actions – and our words – have consequences to ourselves and those around us.

And finally, there is a need to focus on kindness – something really basic that’s been part of life forever. Whether we’re interacting online, by phone, in person or by pen and paper, being kind and considerate can go a very long way towards creating a friendly and civil online environment. And it can start early, with social emotional learning as a key part of child development.

One Good Thing

To that end, ConnectSafely.org is sponsoring the One Good Thing Campaign where we’re asking people – young and old – to send us a short video, Tweet or email telling us about positive things the’ve done or witnessed that makes the Internet a better place or uses connected technology to make the world a better place.

For more about redefining Internet safety, see Anne Collier’s post: The next version of ‘Internet safety’: A look under the hood