2020 Vision: The future of online safety

by Larry Magid

This post first appeared on Forbes.com

The Family Online Safety Institute (FOSI) convenes its annual conference on Thursday, when internet safety experts from around the world will meet at the Newseum in Washington DC to talk about making the online world “safer for kids and their families through enlightened public policy, industry best practice and good digital parenting.”  I’ll be there, as I have nearly every year since FOSI started holding these events in 2007.

This year I’m co-facilitating a discussion called “2020 Vision: The Future of Online Safety,” along with Living in Digital Times founder and former tech-journalist Robin Raskin. In preparing for the workshop, I’ve been thinking about what the net will look like in 2020. Here’s Robin’s essay ahead of this workshop.

Yesterday, today and tomorrow

In tech, three years is a long time so my OLED ball (crystal is so passé ) is a bit fuzzy. Still, I have some ideas as to what we may be grappling with, just as FOSI conference organizers did three years ago as you can see from their 2014 agenda when they were precient enough to focus on such issues a wearable technology and the Internet of Things, (IoT), the explosion of the app ecosystem, and the psychological impact of digital media, which are all relevent today. Still, they missed some things that they couldn’t predict back then such as Russia’s use of social media to influence elections in the US and other countries, the explosion of fake news, trolling and online harassment and massive hack attacks like Yahoo and Experian that would affect nearly everyone in the US and a good portion of the entire planet.

As I look ahead three years, I’m both excited and worried, and I have only a partial answer to the question posed by my headline as to whether the net will be “safe” to use in 2020. My hope is that it will be safer. It will never be 100% safe and there is the possibility that it will be a scarier place than it is today. But, with a bit of work by industry, governments and the rest of us, things could move in the right direction. I say this after what may be the most horrific year for the internet in its more than 50 year history. What happened around the 2016 election was incredibly bothersome even to this rather jaded observer. It wasn’t just the way Russia interfered, but the way Americans turned on each other. A year after election day, there is still rabbid divisiveness and, despite efforts of companies like Twitter and Facebook to tame the trolls, there remain a lot of racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, fake and just plain mean content on social media as well as some high-trafficked websites. Tech companies are grappling with these problems, but they’re a long way from solving them.

Fake news may have peaked during the election, but it hasn’t gone away and its negative impact can’t be overstated. We’re a diverse nation and it’s fine that we have people with a variety of opinions, but our spirited debates would be a lot more productive and civil if we were all working from the same set of facts. That’s why my non-profit, ConnectSafely.org, recently published  The Parent & Educator Guide to Media Literacy & Fake News.

When it comes to kids online, I remain bullish. Most are doing pretty well and managing to avoid cyberbullying or posting things that are likely to harm them in the future. But I do worry about the amount of time kids — including very young ones — are spending with their devices, perhaps at the expense of other healthy activities such as getting some exercise or spending quality in-person time with friends and family. And, while we’ve seen a decline in overall bullying over the past couple of years, Elizabeth Englander and her colleagues from the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center have observed a recent increase in “biased-based incidents” against people of color, women, LGBT youth and around issues of  body weight and special needs.  ConnectSafely’s response to at least part of this problem is our new Parent, Educator & Youth Guide to LGBTQ Cyberbullying.

My hope is that these issues will be at least somewhat diminished by 2020, if not sooner. But read on for:

What I expect by 2020

So, based on what I’m seeing now, here are my predictions for 2020:

  • Increased government regulation of the online environment — especially if industry drags its feet to better self-regulate
  • Increased worry about the potential dangers of artificial intelligence
  • Even more hacks on IoT devices and a push to certify devices to make sure they’re more secure and updatable
  • Worry about physical health and safety dangers associated with augmented reality and virtual reality
  • Even more innovative ways for scammers to separate us from our money
  • Issues of safety, privacy and security of autonomous or at least connected vehicles
  • More concern over internet safety for infants and toddlers
  • Some progress on software to prevent or at least identify fake news
  • Major progress on software to prevent revenge porn
  • Uptake in what I’m calling “transnational cyberbullying” thanks to vast improvements in simultaneous translation tools that will shrink our world even more
  • Misuse of facial recognition software not only by government and industry but consumers and scammers once it’s easy to use and ubiquitous
  • Concern over safety, privacy and security issues for implantable devices
  • Increased worry about cyber warfare and government sponsored hacking
  • Concern over digital drugs

Stay tuned

I look forward to the session at the FOSI conference and the contributions of my co-facilitator and workshop attendees. Smart people thinking about the future can lead to a better future, as long as we act on what we identify as potential pitfalls and work together to make the net better and safer for us all.