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Stephen Balkam Headshot

The Price of Advice

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In a recent New York Times Magazine article, my organization, the Family Online Safety Institute (FOSI), was accurately referenced as a member of the Facebook Safety Advisory Board. This Board consists of five non-profit organizations who broadly work in the area of online safety. We meet once a year for a two-day, face-to-face gathering at Facebook's Palo Alto HQ. We also have regular conference calls to discuss upcoming product releases, changes to their safety and privacy offerings and a chance to raise concerns, criticisms and suggestions for how the company can improve their services for teens and young adults.

In a similar capacity, I sit on several other advisory boards and provide a similar service to other companies, some of whom are direct competitors with Facebook and each other. While it is also true that FOSI receives membership fees from over two dozen companies, Facebook's annual contribution accounts for 4% of our total yearly revenue. At no time has Facebook or any other FOSI member company asked us to keep quiet about any disagreement we have had over their privacy or safety policies and practices. Indeed, I and others on the Board have been strenuous in our (constructive) criticism of Facebook and, happily, there have been positive changes in the way the Facebook experience for 13- to 17-year-olds has evolved over time.

The New York Times piece falsely insinuated that the Safety Advisory Board could not be independent if the groups on it were receiving Facebook financing and that by remaining on the Board, our silence had been bought. Hardly. FOSI has gained its position in the online safety world precisely because we bring together fierce competitors, Google and Microsoft; Verizon and AT&T; Telmex and Telefonica around the same table to work collaboratively to figure out the complex and subtle responses needed to empower parents and their kids to stay safe and be active digital citizens. We see our role as constantly pressing our members, as well as Members of Congress, to keep raising the bar on safety, security, privacy and reputation. And we have successfully challenged the media's previous obsession with predator panic and the fear-based messaging of so many "educational" efforts of the past decade.

More than anything else, we need a balanced and fair dialogue about what it takes to keep kids safe, while also (humbly) listening to them about their actual experiences and the ways they already look after themselves and each other online. We need to keep close to the legitimate researchers who are accurately portraying how kids interact and how their parents are responding to this new digital environment. Based on solid evidence, we can then craft smart public policies and finely tuned safety and privacy practices, supported by industry and backed by independently-minded non-profit organizations.

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