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….

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