Who has Primary Responsibility for Internet Safety, Security & Privacy?

October 18, 2011

If we could only figure out the answer to this question we could sue the irresponsible company, government entity, person, or standards body and get on with things – or not.

Unfortunately, the ugly truth is that we all share in the responsibility of protecting ourselves and others online – and like any project undertaken by committee things can get messed up.

There are five key stakeholder groups when it comes to protecting the internet: 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:

Government & regulators have primary responsibility to ensure internet services aren’t built without proper safety, security and privacy impact evaluations. Government is responsible to ensure clear regulations are in place and responsible for tightly monitoring products that impact consumers daily lives. It is the role of government to ensure these products are in compliance with baseline safety features, and this responsibility must extend to internet products and services; particularly since so many internet companies have demonstrated a failure to design, test and implement for safety, security and privacy.

Society has also tasked government with ensuring the dissemination of public service messages yet much of the current internet safety, security and privacy messaging fails to provide useful, actionable information. The result is that a high percentage of the population remains unaware of the safeguards they need to have in place to be safer online.

Government & regulators also have the primary responsibility of protecting consumer data. For most consumers, information posted and exposed by the federal, state, county and local government agencies represents your greatest risk of becoming a victim of identity theft.

There is a world of difference between requiring governments to be transparent in their actions – often called sunshine laws or freedom of information legislation – to guarantee access to data held by the government, and the wholesale exploitation of consumer’s information by posting birth, marriage, death, property, power of attorney, voter records, criminal records, and more online where individual criminals, would be stalkers, freaks or wholesale criminal organizations can leverage the data in a way that threatens the safety, security, privacy and financial stability of every man, woman and child in the country.

While I support “right-to-know” laws, these need to focus on government actions and stop at the door of private individuals.

Companies have primary responsibility when they provide consumers access to products or services that can hurdle them through cyberspace at warp speed, collect, trade, and sell consumer data. Unfortunately, feeding the bottom line wins out over protecting consumer interests in most cases and companies simply provide consumers access to services and urge them to go have fun; while make it nearly impossible to really understand the safety, privacy and security tradeoffs they’ve just made.

Companies have the primary responsibility to enforce their codes of conduct and ensure users have a reasonable level of safety and control over their data destiny. 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 consumer defense.

Companies have primary responsibility to post notices when a product is about to be expanded and to inform consumers about changes that will add new levels of safety and privacy. As companies rush to add great new features they too often 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, security and privacy elements 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 largely failed to deliver adequate safeguards for consumers.

Here is a standard by which companies should be measured when considering whether they have stepped up to their responsibilities:

Consumer Internet Safety and Privacy Rights – A Standard for Respectful Companies

ALL Internet users have the expectation of a safe Internet experience, and respectful companies strive to provide quality safety and privacy options that are easily discovered and used by consumers.  Your safety and privacy, as well as the safety and privacy of your family on the Internet should be core elements of online product and service design.

In a nutshell, online consumers should demand these rights:

  1. Establishing safety and privacy settings should be an element in the registration, or activation of a specific feature’s, process.  This includes informing you in easily understood language about the potential consequences of your choices. This allows, and requires, you to make your own choices, rather than being pushed into hidden, default settings.
  2. During the registration or activation process, articles of the terms and conditions, and privacy policy, that might affect your privacy or safety, or that of a minor in your care, should be presented to you in easy to understand language, not in a long, complicated legal document in small font.
  3. You should expect complete, easily understood information and age appropriate recommendations about every safety and privacy feature in a product or service.
  4. You should expect to easily report abuse of the products or abuse through the products of you or someone in your care.
  5. You should expect a notice or alert if a significant safety or privacy risk is discovered in an online product or service you or someone in your care is using.
  6. The provider needs to publish on a regular basis statistics demonstrating how well the company enforces its policies.  Such statistics should include; the number and types of abuse reports, number of investigations conducted, and number and type of corrective actions taken by the provider.
  7. When services or products are upgraded, you have the right to be informed of new features or changes to existing features and their impact on your – or your child’s – safety or privacy in advance of the rollout.
  8. When the terms of use or privacy policy of any provider are about to change, you have the right to be informed in advance of the changes and their impact on your – or your child’s – safety and privacy.
  9. When a provider informs you of changes to their features, privacy policy, or terms and conditions, they should provide you with a clearly discoverable, way to either opt out, or block the change, or to terminate your account.
  10. When terminating an account, your provider should enable you to remove permanently and completely all of your personal information, posts, photos, and any other personal content you may have provided or uploaded, or that has been collected by the provider about you.

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 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 – and criminals will run rampant.

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 the necessary safety security and privacy skills need to use the internet successfully are 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, flexible and free information for consumers to take action on. To address this issue, the LOOKBOTHWAYS Foundation has created the NetSkills4Life curriculum. The first 4 lessons of the full K-12 interactive online and FREE curriculum is available to the public now, more lessons are being developed as quickly as possible.

Families have the primary responsibility of teaching their children how to become honest, ethical and capable adults. In today’s world that includes teaching our children to be honest, ethical and capable online. While this is a unique challenge that parents of previous generations have not had to master, it’s time to suck it up and learn how to pass these skills on to our children.

Technology advances and a parent’s job is to keep up. Did parents whine when cars were created and they had to teach their kids to drive and understand traffic safety? What about when phones were invented? Did parents throw up their arms and give up?   The internet has been a critical part of society for at least 10 years now so step up and learn; you don’t have to be a techspert (technical expert) to successfully help your children master the tools and responsibilities they need to be successful.

Parents have the responsibility to say YES to their children’s online activities. Far too many parents (and schools) take the kneejerk ‘no’ response route and this is perhaps the worst possible choice. Failing to allow youth to learn to use the internet sets them up to fail when they finally get out from under their parent’s reach.  Or it forces youth to sneak behind their parents back and use the internet without the support and guidance of a parent.

Instead, parents need to teach the skills and social responsibilities needed to use new online tools and when youth have demonstrated they have mastered both the skills and the responsibilities they need to be allowed to use the services that are appropriate for them. This also means that parents have the responsibility to respect the age restrictions placed on sites, and to teach their children to respect these age boundaries.

Individuals have the primary responsibility for their own safety and ethical use – certainly from the time they reach adulthood. Childhood is a transitional phase where children gain more responsibility as they show they can master situations. For example, while a 16 year old may not be ready to take full responsibility for their online security or privacy, they are ready to be held fully responsible for their online behavior towards others.

In spite of being able to identify the responsibilities of all these stakeholder groups, the internet has not become a safer place.

What’s missing? Commitment.  Each stakeholder group must become more committed and invest more in Internet safety, security, privacy, and in creating a positive online environment. Beyond that commitment each stakeholder group must deliver on three key action areas – providing education, creating a safer product, services and online environment infrastructure, and enforcing the safety, security, privacy, and respect of everyone online. This must happen in a far more coordinated method that is being employed today.

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. it is past time that we put the same level of collaboration in place online.

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.

Seen as a table, responsibilities look like this: