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What's Next In Online Safety

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As part of Cyber Security Awareness Month, I spoke at a panel at the National Press Club to discuss "what's next" in online safety, looking at emerging threats and challenges we may experience down the road. I was joined by the chair of our FOSI board - Brent Olson, AT&T assistant vice president of Regulatory Policy, who discussed some of the industry initiatives AT&T is leading to protect kids online and by Internet and privacy lawyer Christopher Wolf who spoke about the privacy concerns tied to online safety.

Here are my thoughts on what is next in online safety:

The Internet has transformed our lives and the lives of our children. Kids today have access to the world and to each other in ways unimaginable two decades ago. The possibilities for education, training, communication and exploration have only just begun to be tapped, particularly as this generation moves into an interactive, mashed-up, YouTube, MySpace, iPhone way of life.

So the Web 2.0 world has swept all before it, not least those of us who work in the online safety community.

Whereas once we were concerned about keeping kids from relatively static sites like Playboy or Penthouse and urging parents to keep the PC in the living room where they could keep an eye on their children - the kids are now producing the kind of content we once shielded them from - and they are doing it on the fly, with the help of mobile devices, high bandwidth and an always on mentality.

For kids the web has become a continuous stream of consciousness, shared in living color with their "friends" - all 2,000 of them. They Twitter, taunt, tease and generally over-share the details and intimacies of their daily lives. While for some, privacy settings on social networking sites and how to deal with stranger danger are second nature, for others, particularly the "at risk" teens, being online simply magnifies and immortalizes their risky behavior.

And we have a new phenomenon to deal with. Nude photo sharing - and it looks like this: boy meets girl. Boy asks girl for picture of herself which she takes and sends from her phone. Boy says, no, not that kind of picture - you know what I mean. After a few days or weeks of this, add in heaps of peer pressure, and girl takes nude photo of herself and sends to boy who promptly shares with the rest of the school. There are cases pending in court in Texas and Ohio where the kids involved are being charged with production, distribution or possession of child pornography.

Online harassment and cyberbullying is an increasing problem and one that does not remain in the school playground, but follows the child home and gets inflamed by the easy distribution of lies and slander across a multitude of platforms.

And we have the continuing presence of anorexia, bulimia and suicide sites - the ones that actually promote and encourage the condition or intention to do bodily harm.

So, going forward, how are we going to respond to this frenetically changing world? How are we as parents going to control what our kids are exposed to or what they expose of themselves? How should teachers handle their new and daunting responsibilities? What could we learn from other countries' experience and what should the next Administration do to create a positive framework?

Firstly, we must not overreact - either as individual parents to our kids or as a society to this generation of digital natives. We are only just emerging from a prolonged state of technopanic, brought on by such scurrilous programs as "To Catch a Predator" - an ethically-challenged sting operation in unmoderated chat rooms, aided by the aptly named, Perverted Justice, and brought to your living room as "entertainment".

Are there sexual predators on the Internet? Of course there are. But the overwhelming percentage (80%) of child sexual abuse occurs within the home or with a trusted neighbor or friend. The incidents of bad men on the Internet luring our children away are remarkably small - tragic though those cases are.

This wall to wall coverage, however, has skewed our attention and resources to think of online safety in criminal terms. In fact, many kids are both "victims" and "perpetrators" - particularly of bullying behavior, but increasingly of other kinds of inappropriate postings, mailings or profiles.

What we need is some cool, calm analysis of what is really going on and to focus on the 3 C's: Content, Contact and Conduct and to help kids make wise choices online. This will take a sustained effort of education, grounded in relevant research, to reach kids, their parents and teachers in the new realities of our online world.

Let's look briefly at two examples of how this could be done. First, the European Union has the ten-year old Safer Internet Program that has consistently funded pioneering projects in technology, education and awareness-raising efforts across member states. Every three years, new priorities are set, budgets created and projects selected based on their relevance to the stated aims and their collaboration across sectors and countries. No earmarks here. There are stringent monitoring and evaluation processes and 50% matching funds must be found by the successful applicants. There is a European Safer Internet Day and fabulous online resources, safety tips, tools and teaching materials free for anyone to use.

Another excellent example is the ground-breaking work of Dr. Tanya Byron in the UK. Her report, ordered by Prime Minister Brown, looked at the psychological, emotional and intellectual impact of the Internet and computer games on kids. Her recommendations, delivered earlier this year, have been fully endorsed by the British government and they are currently being implemented. One such recommendation is the creation of the UK Council for Internet Safety, made up of government, industry and NGOs to meet regularly to implement a national strategy on online safety.

Full disclosure - I sit on the Council and think highly of its remit and how it came into being. Much work, of course, needs to be done, but it is a very encouraging first step.

So what can we do here and how should the next Administration respond? Firstly, we need to see high level ownership of this as an issue. The Clinton Administration held regular meetings on this - with the President and Vice President actively engaged. Since then, we've experienced an eight-year vacuum and a total lack of leadership. Instead, we've seen departments and agencies, notably, Justice, Commerce, Education, the FCC, and FTC all try to do their best with limited resources. We need national leadership and we need joined-up government.

It is time for a new Congressional Commission on online safety. I served on the COPA Commission of 2000, whose findings remain relevant today, though they are steeped in the ancient past of a Web 1.0 world. It's time to look again.

And we need relevant research-based educational and media literacy programs - from national Smokey Bear-type messaging, to targeted resources for parents, teachers and the kids themselves. It will be the work of a generation and we need to begin now.

We at FOSI will explore these and other ideas at our upcoming conference to be held on December 11 at the Newseum to which I would urge you all to attend and actively participate. We have invited both campaigns and hope that the key members of the Transition Team will be on hand to talk about their plans, while also hearing from us on what we believe needs to be done. In addition, there will be an exhibition of some of the best technologies and educational methods being used today.

So, while the issue is daunting and constantly changing, I remain optimistic - that kids can be Safe at Any Speed - provided we continue to create the tools, rules and public policies to keep them that way.

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