iAlja's blog

Click. Learn. Share.

Safer Internet Forum: Lessons Learned and Observations From an Outsider

A while ago, I was invited to join the Safer Internet Forum as a speaker. Huh, me? I am aware of various safer internet initiatives aimed at children, but as I neither have kids nor work with kids, it’s not really something I think about often. Especially because I imagine I can keep myself relatively safe online.

Still, they insisted I was the right candidate for their panel on youth innovation and creativity. The panel, skillfully led by Ollie Bray (his school has 3D printers!), also featured 14 year old Nina, who has big plans for her privacy related apps, and Albert, a 16 years old security wizard and consultant. Both Nina and Albert really give me hope for the future of Europe. They are what the media should be talking about, not the latest Miley scandal.

The importance of being connected

The whole thing was an interesting experience due to lack of reliable and fast connectivity at the event venue (and in the city). It reminded me of two things:

A) For some people, this is a daily issue. We must get rural areas connected.

B) We need to remind our policy makers about the benefits of a single telecom market in Europe. Roaming must go. T-Mobile is leading the way, when will others follow?

As far as the forum itself is concerned, it was interesting to spend a few days outside my usual circle. Having to explain the word startup was a good reminder that the we need to talk more about what’s going on in our industry.

What is safe internet anyway?

Some other random observations from the past few days:

  • Education is key, but it is still unclear how to reach adults. Kids at least have the chance of being exposed to the topic at school. Insafe is doing a great job here!
  • Speaking of safe internet, there wasn’t much talk about what safe means. Good and bad content are very arbitrary categories. Dangerously so when we start talking about regulation and internet filters.
  • Most of the participants seemed very fond of the idea of putting more regulations on the “industry”. What they don’t seem to realize is that a lot of the widely spread services are being created by very young, understaffed, underpaid teams without a lawyer. Facebook can afford lobbyist, a young startup won’t survive if we put more barriers in its way. Especially those that don’t design services for kids, but kids happen to embrace them.
  • I wish there was more emphasis on the importance of coding, being able to build your own solutions to problems you’re facing (Linda and I were playing the devil’s advocates here). There were some awesome kids at the event, repeating how only kids can help kids be safer because they understand what is it like to be young. Great, but why don’t you create your own privacy and safety tools, like young Nina does? Most adults around you don’t really understand how the internet works, governments are too slow and broke, it’s up to you to shape your future!
  • Speaking of not understanding how internet works, I was really taken aback by a teenager that was strongly proposing removing all anonymity from the internet. Teehee. And again, a dangerous view to have in terms of freedom of speech. Not just related to posting cat pictures, think more in terms of citizen reporting. Honestly, I think teenagers should embrace pseudonyms. Talk to the old folks, like myself, who grew up with IRC, if you want to know how that works, kids.
  • There is clearly too little collaboration between the safer internet community and startups. They see us, geeks, as crazy hacking anarchists, while we simply don’t have the time, knowledge and experience to consider the needs of children when building new services from scratch.
  • This was the first internet related even with more women than man. Nothing wrong with that per se, but I still dreaming of more woman actively creating the future of internet rather than just being worried about how it might affect children. It’s an important topic, but the best way to make a safer internet is to join the front lines.

What can we do better?

Suggestion for next time: preserve the diversity of voices and interactive discussions. But embrace a hacker mentality. Have a safer internet forum hackaton. Bring in some young coders, have them come up with concrete tools. Made by kids for kids.

Just like we need more women in startups creating products women can relate to, we need young people solving their own problems. The companies that usually get public funding for tools and content aren’t the ones that innovate and think out of the box. So why not bring kids into the equation?

For instance, kids concerned about “bad content” could build a browser for kids with a flagging/rating system for websites. With enough votes from trusted user, the address bar is green. For not yet rated gray, orange in between, and red for known offenders, requiring the user to explicitly click for access. It’s not something I, as an adult, would build or use myself, but could be a tool that teenagers can build and control themselves.

But of course, for that to happen on scale, we have to start teaching kids about coding as a tool from an early age. I’m afraid that can only happen once their teacher also learn more about technology, internet culture, and open source principles. It’s certainly a chicken and egg problem. Where can we start?