On the 24th of November, the INSAFE/INHOPE/BIK network and the European Commission DG CNECT organised in Luxembourg the 2016 edition of the Safer Internet Forum under the theme “Be the change”.
The conference brought together a variety of stakeholders including young people, parent and teacher representatives, industry and government policy makers and civil society organisations to discuss the ongoing challenges of achieving a “Better Internet for Kids”. As one in three Internet users are children, it is essential to come up with sustainable strategies to tackle such issues as harmful content, commercial exploitation and cyberbullying.
Javier Hernandez-Ros, acting Director of DG CNECT, emphasized the importance of following up on the challenges and ideas identified during the Safer Internet Forum through the Alliance to better protect minors online, a DG CNECT multistakeholder group which will start its work next year and aims at addressing the challenges childrens face online.
Mary Aiken, researcher at the University College Dublin, followed by a key note speech on the basis of her book “the Cyber Effect” which aims at presenting findings from cyber-psychology and research from behavioural and child development studies in relation to technology in an accessible way.
Some of her most powerful messages include:
- The necessity to inform policy making via quality peer-reviewed studies in the emerging fields of cyber-psychology and child development/behaviour, from independent sources, conducting research for public good/general interest.
- Develop guidelines for the use of ICT and the Internet based on research. Examples include banning screens for babies aged 0 to 2 years old and creating a “safe space” for young children online.
- Add “cyber rights” to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.
- Reviewing the Internet Governance process to ensure child protection is a priority.
- There can be no trade-offs between privacy, security and the vitality of the tech industry. All three issues need to be equally addressed without one taking precedence over the other.
The commercialization of childhood
This panel session brought together academia, civil society and industry representatives to discuss the growing exposure of children to commercial content/commercial solicitations online. Two researchers from the University of Ghent underlined a number of important research findings, especially the fact that children have a hard time to recognize certain “new” types of online advertising techniques and that “labels” like the “PP” label to notify about product placements are not very effective in signaling to children that certain contents includes advertising.
John Carr from eNACSO stressed that while regulation has cracked down on many immoral advertising practices in the real world, such as paying children to talk to their peers about a product in real life, regulation has lagged behind on online advertising. While the EU Commission has relied on self-regulation, the results and impact of such self-regulation to limit children’s exposure to advertising is less than convincing. Children should have a charter of economic rights and not be tagged simply as “vulnerable consumers”. This could be achieved, potentially, via a revision of the unfair commercial practices of the EU Commission.
Martin Schmalzried from COFACE-Families Europe shared two recommendations on how to limit children’s exposure to advertising online:
- New “indicators” need to be developed to enable children/parents to choose services which adopt a fair and responsible advertising policy. One such indicator is the ratio between advertising and “native” content. How many posts out of 10 are advertising? What “surface” of the screen/webpage is covered with advertising? Users need to have some indicators to compare how various online services, platforms or content providers fare in displaying advertising.
- Regulators should not exclude the ban of certain advertisement techniques. As John Carr has underlined, regulators have banned certain advertisement techniques in the real world on several accounts on the grounds of unethical/unfair practices. There is no reason why online advertising should be exempt from such regulation.
BIK to the future
The final panel session of the Safer Internet Forum looked to the future and the challenges ahead. Our colleague Martin Schmalzried presented 7 key areas of focus that will need to be addressed in the future:
Exposure to VR will increase substantially over the next years as the cost of the technology drops. Some of the issues include:
- Harassment/cyberbullying: the first instances of “virtual groping” have surfaced on the Internet in the last few weeks. The negative effects of cyberbullying, harassment and any forms of harmful content/contact will be multiplied in VR settings due to the increased realism and immersiveness of VR. Studies have already shown that VR can be used successfully for curing post traumatic stress disorder and boost empathy. The opposite is therefore very likely true (it can enhance trauma and desensitization).
- Child pornography and child abuse may also move to VR as the combination of VR with connected sex toys and haptic feedback devices will greatly increase “realism”.
- The collection of data in VR will raise new questions about privacy. The data generated by users could be used for advertising in VR, for instance, as advertising has proven to be more effective in VR environments.
- Physical problems related to VR are also likely to emerge such as eye strain, impaired depth of vision (if used by young children), or injury by collision against a “real world” object while immersed in VR.
There are many controversies which have surfaced about algorithms lately, notably the “filter bubble” effect and the viral nature of “fake news”. Algorithms can help in tackling several problems including cyberbullying, hate speech or identifying fake news, but this requires a willingness of companies to work on developing such solutions.
Algorithms will also require increased accountability mechanisms such as independent audits to avoid discrimination or unfair “humanless” decisions to be carried out. Without human judgment and interpretation, algorithms are useless and may create more problems then they solve. An example is the “predictive policing” algorithm. While it may be successful in fighting crime, as in identifying the neighborhoods where a crime is most likely to happen, the “lessons” learned from such an algorithm need a human interpretation. Are all “blacks and latinos” more likely to be criminals or rather, are all humans struck by poverty, discrimination, desperation, and exclusion more likely to commit crime? The implications of such an interpretation are highly important as in the first case, one may decide that the solution is to build more prisons, in the second case, one may decide that the solution is to fight inequalities and discrimination.
Finally, algorithms deserve their own “liberalization”, moving away from the “monopoly” and control of their current owners. The data kept by Facebook and Google is simply a billion row and column database which could be “searched” and “ranked” by any algorithm, not just the “proprietary” algorithm of Facebook and Google. Allowing third parties to propose “custom” algorithms might help solve many of the issues discussed above such as “filter bubbles” and “fake news”.
3-Online business models
The current online business models are also much to blame for the “harmful” content or “fake news” available. Fake news heavily rely on advertising revenue, which often takes up more space than the “content” of the fake news article. Users do not understand “new” business models relying on user data or “in app purchases”/”freemium”. In the past, economies of scale provided that the more users bought a good, the cheaper it was to produce and the cheaper it could be sold, thereby greatly benefiting consumers and society as a whole. Online, this system is broken. Normally, with more and more users subscribing to Facebook, the prevalence of advertising should be dropping since Facebook should be able to “sell” its services for less advertising. But the opposite has happened! Instead, there is more and more advertising on both Facebook, Youtube and many other online platforms. Because users do not understand such business models, these services can get away with sucking more and more money from users’ time (since their revenue is generated by wasting people’s time looking at advertising) instead of lowering their “price” (advertisement prevalence) as would normally happen under a healthy “competitive” environment in the real world.
The same holds true for many other forms of digital services or content. Apps don’t get cheaper with more people buying them, although the cost of developing them is the same!
More and more, we hear about the term “digital citizen” which is a “sexy” way to describe contemporary Internet users. However, the word “citizenship” and “citizen” are ill-chosen. Rather, the term should be “digital subject”. Indeed, citizenship implies that a person has a right to vote or influence the rules and laws by which he/she is governed. On the Internet, most if not all online service providers do not function as democracies but rather like monarchies, with terms of service and community standards written by the owners and with little to no “rights” for their users, only obligations.
Deep learning and machine learning has had many breakthroughs in the last decade and many more are coming. The impact on our societies should not be underestimated. Some are already talking about “labour displacement” or even permanent loss of available jobs. Humans generate more and more data through their everyday mobile phone use, Internet surfing habits and many emerging technologies such as VR and Internet of Things. All this data, if structured properly, can be used to accelerate the development of AI and machine/deep learning, and the implications should not be underestimated. As the saying goes, “children are great imitators, so give them something great to imitate”, this is even truer for AI and machine/deep learning: AI is only as good as the data it works with!
6-Terrorism and radicalization
Terrorism, support of terrorism, radicalization, online recruitment have been high on the agenda for policy makers especially since ISIS/ISIL has emerged and social media have been widely used to propagate their messages and rhetoric. The “easy” response has been to ask for increased filtering, take-down or overall censorship of any content promoting/supporting terrorism in one way or another.
But not only is it difficult to fight such messages since new social media accounts from which such messages are being shared are created every day, but also since terrorists move to communication technologies which are harder to trace/monitor or censor such as the private messaging app telegram.
Unfortunately, focusing on censorship is like sweeping dust under a rug. It might help in the short term, but in the long term, be counter-productive. ISIS/ISIL’s emergence is strongly linked to Europe’s colonial history and recent US imperialism. Their propaganda is successful because it builds on accurate historical facts which have been ignored, minimized or even denied in our societies. Terrorism is also linked to poverty, social exclusion and seeking vengeance for the death of loved ones (as is often the case between Palestine and Israel). The priority should be how to prevent terrorism by addressing inequalities, social exclusion and bringing to justice those who are responsible for the death of innocents, often in the name of human rights/democracy but in reality, serving other interests.
News about yet another data breach and theft of millions of credit card information, user account details and the likes surface more and more often. Cybersecurity, in order to be successful in the future, will have to be considered as a public good. The open source movement is a model in this respect. With a strong community of voluntary and engaged security researchers, open source software such as Linux/GNU stays highly secure. Other proprietary security solutions rely on hiding code and hoping that no one will be able to find a vulnerability or security flaw. Time and again, this has proven to be wildly ineffective. Even “new” technologies as blockchain are based on crowdsourced security as breaking it would require, among other things, to take control of at least half of the computers on which blockchain technology is running.
For more information about the Safer Internet Forum, please visit the official website here: https://www.eiseverywhere.com/ehome/202903/456936/
For any questions, contact Martin Schmalzried (COFACE-Families Europe): firstname.lastname@example.org
It’s happening. COFACE has been asking for a long time for new strategies to fight hate speech and cyberbullying, including the use of algorithms and Artificial Intelligence to assist human moderators and also the recourse to community based moderation where users can vote on taking content down.
Facebook has been steadily developing/training algorithms to help identify offensive photos. At this point, algorithms report more potentially offensive photos than humans! Twitter, which has been attacked in the past over its lackluster ability to fight abuse, has also invested in Artificial Intelligence to help weed out abusive content. The help and assistance of AI is welcome, especially since relying on human moderation only comes with many sets of problems such as speed of reaction or even negative psychological consequences for the human moderators which are forced to look at the worst content humanity has to offer.
Progress in the development of such algorithms could benefit all online service providers as Facebook has vowed to share its findings more broadly 
On the other hand, Periscope (owned by Twitter) is rolling out another approach to moderation, adapted to live streaming and instant feedback and user interaction: a form of live community based moderation. Viewers will be able to immediately report a comment they deem abusive during a live streaming. The app then randomly selects within the audience a “jury” who will vote whether the comment is abusive/inappropriate or not. Should the “jury” vote to sensor the comment, the author of the comment will not be able to post temporarily. If the author of the comment repeats the offense, he/she will be blocked from commenting for the rest of the live streaming 
Although such initiatives are long overdue, COFACE welcomes their introduction and will closely follow their development, hopefully contributing to create a better online environment for children and for families.
Today, children connect to the internet with mobile devices at an ever earlier age. Fast evolution in the field of ICT creates new challenges and opportunities.
While some years ago parents could still monitor their children’s use of the internet on the home computer, access to the internet has become ever more mobile. Children have, at their fingertips, access to an unprecedented wealth of information and a way to interact with the whole world. At the same time, a certain set of skills are needed to make the most out of the internet. Challenges such as cyberbullying, exposure to inappropriate or harmful content, exposure to advertising and excessive use/time spent on the internet are real and can have enduring negative effects on the development of children.
What can we do?
In essence, keeping children safe online is the responsibility of all actors. Parents, teachers, service providers, hardware manufacturers, policy makers…
At the same time, parents are the primary educators of children and in the case of young children, parents are virtually the sole reference for establishing healthy habits and adhering to core values such as respect, be it online or offline.
Children need to learn as early as possible about their rights and responsibilities and parents are among the first to initiate this learning process.
Knowledge these two dimensions can help children put into better perspective and react better to issues such as cyberbullying, by knowing what rights they have should they be a victim and by keeping in mind the consequences should they be a perpetrator.
But all parents are not IT-savy and do not feel comfortable or capable to discuss and exchange about the online world with their children. To that end, COFACE has set up a resources page on its website to help reference and share good practices and resources that can help parents in their essential parenting role.
For more information, please have a look at our resources page.
Happy Safer Internet Day 2014! #SID2014
This year’s Safer Internet Day theme looks at the responsibility that we must all take in making the internet a better place. Whether we are children and young people, parents and carers, educators or social care workers, or indeed industry, decision makers or politicians, we all have a role to play.
We can contribute to foster the positive and eliminate the negative online in many ways, regardless of who we are. For example:
Children and young people can help to foster the positive by being kind and respectful to others online, by protecting their online reputations, and by seeking out positive opportunities to create, engage and share online. They can help to eliminate the negative by being ‘helpful bystanders’: supporting peers if they encounter issues online, taking a stand against cyberbullying, and reporting any inappropriate or illegal content they find.
In this regard, COFACE is currently coordinating the European Awareness Raising Campaign on Cyberbullying: #DeleteCyberbullying. The project, through the cooperation of the international partners, contributes to developing a common approach to risk-prevention, information and guidelines to families, parents, children and other relevant stakeholders. We have created a short educational video Cyberbullying: there is a way out! available now in 9 languages.
Parents and carers can help to foster the positive by maintaining an open and honest dialogue with their children about their online lives, by supporting them with their personal development online and helping them to deal with any concerns or issues, seeking out positive opportunities to share with their children online, and helping their children to find and use good quality digital resources. They can help to eliminate the negative by monitoring and supporting their child’s online activity, by modelling positive online behaviours themselves, and by also reporting any inappropriate or illegal content they find.
Educators and social care workers can help to foster the positive by equipping children and young people with the digital literacy skills they require for today’s world, and giving them opportunities to use and create positive content online. They can help to eliminate the negative by supporting youngsters if they encounter problems online, and by giving them the confidence and skills to seek help from others.
Industry can help to foster the positive by creating and promoting positive content and services online, developing ethical and transparent policies, and protecting our data. They can help to eliminate the negative by making systems and services more secure by design, by being more responsive to user concerns, and by providing quick and easy access to support if things do go wrong.
Decision makers and politicians can help to foster the positive by ensuring that there are opportunities in the curriculum for children to learn and teachers to teach about online safety, ensuring that parents and carers have access to appropriate information and sources of support, and that industry are encouraged to self regulate their content and services. They must also take the lead in governance and legislation, and ultimately ensure the safety and wellbeing of children and young people through effective child protection strategies for the online world.
Safer Internet Day is organised by the joint Insafe/INHOPE network, with the support of the European Commission each 11 February to promote safer and more responsible use of online technology and mobile devices, especially among children and young people. On Safer Internet Day hundreds of events are organised to raise awareness of online safety issues.
COFACE’s profile on the SID website: www.saferinternetday.org/web/coface