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:

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