Who has Primary Responsibility for Internet Safety?

A Texas judge ruling determined that parents own the primary responsibility for protecting minors online as he dismissed a lawsuit filed by the parents of a young teen girl against MySpace. According to the Los Angeles Times, Judge Spark’s specific comment was “If anyone had a duty to protect Julie Doe, it was her parents, not MySpace.”

This statement is on par with claiming parents are primarily responsible for traffic deaths of their teens. If someone hands a 14-year-old keys to a faulty car and says “go have fun” down a poorly maintained freeway that doesn’t warn of steep curves would society blame the parents for the ensuing crash?

The judge’s comment fails to consider the ‘primary responsibilities’ for which every Internet safety stakeholder group must be held accountable. There are five key stakeholder groups: Industry companies & organizations; Governments & regulators; Law enforcement & oversight boards; Individuals & families; and Schools & other educational resources. Here is an overview of who should be responsible for which safety elements:

Companies have primary responsibility when they provide minors access to products that can hurdle them through cyberspace at warp speed but don’t provide a user manual or require drivers’ education, don’t provide brakes, locks, or airbags, don’t provide fenders on sharp turns or banked roadways for safer navigation – or speed limits. In most cases companies provide teens access without parental consent or knowledge and urge them to go have fun.

Companies have the primary responsibility to enforce their codes of conduct and ensure reasonable safety. We hold amusement parks responsible for negligent conditions that allow injuries to occur, it is reasonable to apply the same standard to ‘virtual’ amusement parks. In their own online environments they must be the first line of safety.

Companies have primary responsibility to post notices that a once sleepy country lane is about to be expanded and to inform consumers about ‘upgrades’ that will add turbo engines to once-humble products. Many adult IM users are surprised to discover that IM has steadily upgraded far beyond the ‘real-time email’ service they thought they knew. As companies have rushed to add great new features like rich profiles, avatars, extended networking (friends of friends), video, and music players, bots, gadgets, buddy searches and location tools they cut corners. Being first with a feature, or a fast follower, requires tradeoffs and all too often the first thing cut and the last piece reluctantly added are safety elements like filters for images & text, safety information within products, the ability to turn off or restrict access to high risk areas, and new features that specifically help users manage their exposure.

Service providers will continue to innovate and this is good for everyone. However, consumers have the right to be informed about each new feature that affects their exposure to risk, and be able to determine whether the risk potential is appropriate for themselves and their families. Automatic ‘upgrades’ without notification can bear a strong resemblance to ‘bait and switch’.

The Internet industry has for years promoted ‘self regulation’ of online tools & services, but they have failed to deliver adequate safeguards for consumers.

Government & regulators have primary responsibility to ensure roads aren’t built without proper traffic and pedestrian impact evaluations. Government is responsible to ensure clear safety regulations are in place and adhered to. Whenever slower traffic, pedestrians, and especially youth are impacted by infrastructural changes in their environment, regulations require public hearings, overpasses, underpasses, rerouting, warning lights, barriers, reduced speed limits, etc. The equivalent regulations, guidelines and oversights are missing for the Internet highway.

Government regulatory bodies are responsible for tightly monitoring car manufacturers for compliance with baseline safety features, a role they were tasked with when that industry failed to self regulate. Internet industry companies have largely demonstrated a similar failure to design, test and implement for safety though there are notable exceptions like mobile providers investing to reduce mobile Internet safety issues, Microsoft’s Xbox 360 team, and both Disney’s and Nickelodeon’s online services.

Society has also tasked government with ensuring the dissemination of public service messages yet too much of the current ‘Internet safety’ messaging is fear based, and fails to provide useful, actionable information. Using fear to scare people into safer internet practices is not only ineffective; it damages the credibility of high-quality safety messages – especially when frequently cited.

Safety messaging must explain both potential risks and how to evaluate risks to determine what you are comfortable with. Risk aversion or risk tolerance thresholds, like morality based filter options, are personal & family value choices not something to be dictated by companies, governments, or educational programs.

Law enforcement has primary responsibility to monitor society’s safety, prevent crime and bring to justice those who break the law. Yet, this is a tall order when adequate laws & regulations are missing to facilitate enforcement, adequate safety features weren’t built into the products to minimize the potential for exploitation, and even so-called public sites are owned and run by companies, not society. Additionally, there has been a critical failure to allocate the funding, training and resources law enforcement needs in order to provide the level of safety we expect.

Crime has always enjoyed better funding than law enforcement, but without assurances of basic safety the public will not be able to fully realize the tremendous opportunities the Internet has to offer.

Schools have primary responsibility for teaching youth, and adults the tools and skills they need to be successful members of society. Mastering the Internet and Internet safety have become critical life skills. But, no one has taught teachers how to teach Internet safety, or provided a solid curriculum for classrooms. While on the one hand we seem flooded with ‘safety information’ there is a shortage of factual, practical information for consumers to take action on.

Who should we blame?

Families that were never informed when a company gave their child access to a product missing basic safeguards? Families and individuals who failed to demand adequate safety from companies, failed to demand governments regulate or moderate the industry and voted against spending increases to cover law enforcement needs?

Companies and an industry that failed to define or build adequate safeguards into products, build abuse prevention and monitoring infrastructures, or inform consumers of risks?

The government & watchdog groups who failed to establish regulatory safeguards or incentives to companies who failed to adequately self regulate? Government that failed to effectively fund law enforcement or provide safety curriculum or funds for schools?

Law enforcement that has not kept pace with Internet crime, but didn’t get the funding, resources or industry assistance in doing so?

Schools that failed to teach consumers of all ages critical online safety life-skills? When no solid curriculum has been created, no training provided, technology access is limited, and the few hours a day teachers have to teach is already crammed?

There is enough blame here to fodder lawsuits for years to come.

In the meantime, each stakeholder group must invest more in Internet safety and deliver on their responsibilities in three key action areas – providing education, safer product and online environmental infrastructure, and enforcing safety. This must also happen in a far more coordinated method. Integration of initiatives is complicated, but the level of collaboration required is not new. We’ve done it in other areas like road safety, drug safety, health issues, etc. yet somehow there is a general failure to anticipate these requirements.

Without synchronized efforts by all stakeholder groups the web of safety will continue to have gaps that far too many consumers of all ages will fall through. It’s time for everyone to step up.

Linda

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