The Internet’s changing. Internet safety needs to too — in 5 ways

The way we think about and use the Internet is changing — certainly not just because of the striking shift of focus from public to private announced by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg yesterday, not just because of the post-2016 big data wakeup call, and not just because of violence and election manipulation around the world. Those are all important symptoms, though, and I think we need to sync up and consider changing up our response on the risk-prevention side of the equation.

Because we’re changing too — at least, our use of media and tech is. In his coverage of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s announcement, New York Times reporter Mike Isaac wrote that FB’s move will “redefine how people use social media.” Then he contradicted himself, saying that “consumers were already moving en masse toward more private methods of digital communications,” citing Snapchat, Nextdoor, Signal and Telegram. I believe it’s more the latter, though I know it’s sometimes hard to tell.

In any case, the Internet, how we think of it and how we use it are changing, so it’s time for Internet safety to change too. How? Some suggestions:

  • Embrace a new(-old) paradigm. Since its earliest days, Internet safety has — in many countries — been positioned in the public health paradigm. Quite understandably, since research emerged slowly, Net safety education has been reactive, often scary, and about control (as in controlling the spread of a disease) and prohibition (as with drug addiction — now “tech addiction”). In the earliest days — and we’re now seeing this again with “digital wellbeing” — self-proclaimed experts and NGOs literally made stuff up. At least until 2013 in the US, when researchers analyzed our country’s most widely used Internet safety curricula and programs, none of it was evidence-based or employed even the most basic criteria of risk prevention education. We now have a solid and growing body of youth online risk and social media research, so it’s time we embrace another paradigm. Certain aspects of the old public health model continue to make sense, for example the “levels of prevention” (primary prevention instruction for all youth, e.g., digital literacy, media literacy and social literacy/SEL; secondary more situational and targeted instruction when incidents arise; and tertiary prevention and intervention for vulnerable youth). But not the laser focus on threat reduction. Internet safety also needs to fit the education model….
  • Teach rather than control. Instead of fear, control and prohibition, can we embrace evidence, agency and efficacy as in the education paradigm? Can we demand evidence-based instruction, particularly for schools? Though some scholars have criticized “Internet safety” as too much of a catch-all subject, if it is a single subject, it needs to teach skills and afford agency — enable students to help themselves and each other. Certainly by now, we no longer see control and prohibition supporting any but possibly the most vulnerable young people, right? For years, researchers throughout Europe and North America have been pointing us in this direction, and I remember hearing a researcher in Australia say back in 2013 that Internet safety education has “reached the saturation point” for youth in that country. How much more so in 2019?! What would help, I think, is just to teach “The Internet,” not just “Internet safety.” The future makers and beneficiaries of Internet policy need to know things like how the Internet works, how it started and has evolved, how it’s governed, what algorithms and A.I. are, and what their human, legal and digital rights are. [See a curriculum called the Living Online Lab for teaching that includes this kind of history and context.]
  • Double down on user empowerment education — in terms of how the Internet industry can help educators. Some people call it digital literacy ed, but it’s more than that, and I’ll get really specific: 1) Teach and help young users to report abuse on the platforms they use. 2) Make those reporting tools supremely easy to find and use. Start young. Know that this education needs to start the moment young users pick up a connected device — and it’s not just about using tools. 3) Teach young users their rights and powers online and offline ­– all the rights of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the power to exercise them.
  • Build out the ecosystem of user care that’s taking shape around the world — in a strategic (not reactive), coordinated way. The onus, here, is largely on the Internet industry — from Facebook’s first steps toward creating an international “Oversight Board” to Internet help organizations and governmental agencies around the world. These initiatives and services need to be connected up, coordinated, expanded and supported. This is work that algorithms will never replace. This can be done outside of governments, but it can’t be done without the Internet industry. I’ve already written plenty about this here.
  • See and exercise our powers. This depends a lot on us users, but industry can help get the message out. Change is hard and it seems to be accelerating, but we’ll handle it better and better as we think of ourselves less as consumers and potential victims and more clearly as drivers, not just the product of, these platforms that depend on our use. No one has all the answers on how to exercise our user and producer powers, but turning exclusively to regulators for and reflexively dismissing and excluding the platforms from solution development will not help us figure it out. It won’t even help policymakers develop sound regulation. The platforms do have unprecedented power — in fact, they’re global social institutions now — but consider that word “unprecedented.” We all, not just the platforms, are collectively, globally, breaking new ground. It takes the perspectives of all stakeholders, including those at the user care/operations end of social media to find and implement safety amid unprecedented conditions.

The upside of size

But speaking of power, there’s an aspect to this announcement that I haven’t seen in the news coverage of Zuckerberg’s announcement yet. A geopolitical aspect. With this shift to focusing more on private communication, Facebook seems to be creating the WeChat of the Western world. WeChat, which is ubiquitous in China (with 1 billion monthly active users), is where Chinese citizens bank, book flights, order food, pay bills, call cabs, as well as send texts and share media. That’s what Facebook seems to be laying the groundwork for. By adding a payment system, integrating Whatsapp, Messenger and Instagram Direct and bringing end-to-end encryption to them all, Facebook will be able to have the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink characteristics of China’s massively popular WeChat, owned by tech giant Tencent, reportedly the world’s 6th largest Internet company.

Probably the most important difference is, a Chinese citizen’s WeChat account will also be their national ID “card.” The app is “poised to become China’s official electronic ID system,” reported the South China Morning Post, a system Tencent is co-developing with China’s Ministry of Public Security.

Fold that into the privacy discussion — that and the fact that Tencent has invested in Reddit, Snap, Kik, Fortnite owner Epic Games and other North American companies — and Facebook’s size and plans might look different, including from a civil liberties perspective. It’s complicated, but when we talk about citizens’ right to privacy from government and using resources to obtain more research and attain new levels of safety in end-to-end encrypted chat, sheer size — and competition for WeChat — may be a good thing.

Where I’m placing great hope is that this transformation process Facebook is undertaking — with interoperability and E2E encryption across it services, “reducing permanence” of content, and increasing user safety and data security — will be as transparent and multi-stakeholder as Zuckerberg said it will be: “There’s a lot to do here, and we’re committed to working openly and consulting with experts across society as we develop this.” Facebook VP of Global Affairs Nick Clegg said the same thing when he announced the start of Facebook’s Oversight Board. Maybe it’s a new refrain from Facebook. If so, it’s a good one.

Disclosure: I’ve served on the trust & safety boards of seven social media companies over the years, starting with Facebook’s in 2009. The ideas expressed, here—informed by that work, as well as 20+ years of writing about youth and digital media—are entirely my own.

Youth advocate; blogger, NetFamilyNews.org; founder, The Net Safety Collaborative