Keeping kids safe online while also giving them freedom to explore is tough. Giving parents timely information and the skills they need while helping them be good digital role models to their kids is not easy.
Encouraging Internet companies, large and small, to build safety by design into their products and services can be an uphill struggle. And ensuring law enforcement has the laws in place and the resources they need to tackle the worst forms of behavior and abuse is complex.
So what's a national government to do?
That was the core question asked at the conference, we co-hosted with Telecom Italia in Rome today. How can the Italian government or any government, working with industry, the non-profit organizations, teachers, police and kids themselves, create a national framework for online safety? And how can this be done while being open, inclusive, transparent and with a light regulatory touch?
It's best to break things down into three core questions:
• Who is involved?
• What is involved?
• How is it set up?
Firstly, there is an obvious role for government to play a part. Laws, backed up by well-resourced law enforcement, are needed to protect the most vulnerable in our society and to provide safeguards against the most egregious activity online.
Government can also fund research, educational efforts, and awareness-raising campaigns. And national governments can provide a convening role for all the players involved.
What we actively discourage is heavy-handed censorship or unnecessary legislation that inhibits innovation and new, creative technologies or content that benefit kids, parents and seniors alike.
Next, the Internet industry plays a vital role in not only providing online access, products and services, but also in setting the terms of service, content policies and community standards for their various platforms. And industry can provide leadership through self-regulation and corporate social responsibility and there are many examples here in the room today.
The relevant non-profit organizations are a vital element in any national plan - from children's organizations, parent groups to senior citizen NGOs. All play an important role in both feeding into the creation of a framework, while also helping to deliver many services and messages to their members and users.
Naturally, teachers, educators, administrators and others involved in our schools must also be included in building a national online safety agenda.
And, of course, teachers will be instrumental in showing our children about how to be safe, secure and private while online.
Let's not forget researchers, both private and academic, to ensure we have the most accurate and up-to-date picture of the issues and concerns we want to address. All too often, we react to emotional newspaper headlines, whether it be about cyberbullying, sexting or internet addiction with a fear-based instead of an evidence-based response.
We must add the psychologists and school counselors to the mix. They have a unique perspective into the lives of our young people and the sometimes negative impact social media or inappropriate content can have.
The media plays a key role in both communicating the elements of the national framework, while also keeping all those involved honest and good to their word.
And last, but certainly not least, let's involve young people in building the plan and in providing input into its implementation. All too often we simply think of kids as passive recipients of our safety messages & products. They have much to teach us about living in our fast-paced digital world.
So having brought together all the key stakeholders, what will the framework contain?
Here are the key elements:
• Well-balanced legislation - providing reasonable government oversight and support
• Educational efforts - to reach every child with timely & relevant information and advice
• Parenting resources - family contracts, tips, tools & a place to seek help in raising good digital citizens
• Ongoing research - to ensure laws and educational efforts are fact, not fear-based
• Filtering & privacy tools - needed for every on-ramp to the Internet
• Acceptable use policies - for both schools & libraries, but also for online platforms
• Good content for kids - compelling, educational and fun
So, how is all of this to be realized?
We advocate for a multi-stakeholder approach that brings government, industry, the NGOs and all interested parties to the table. This bottom-up approach is preferable to a top-down, overly bureaucratic approach, which also values and encourages industry self-regulation.
It also promotes experimentation within the non-profit organizations - using them as a test-bed for projects, initiatives and ground-breaking programs that can be taken up nationally.
What are some of the examples of best practice in creating such a framework?
The UK Council for Child Internet Safety or UKCCIS is a remarkably robust, ministerial-led, multi-stakeholder group that has steered Britain's online safety agenda for over 5 years. Britain now has a Minister for Internet Safety to oversee it's national initiatives. And Australia has recently created a similar position, an eSafety Commissioner, with wide ranging powers and responsibility in this space.
In the US, we bring together all the key stakeholders at our annual two-day conference in Washington, DC every November. It is the largest gathering of the online safety community anywhere in the world and we strive to bring together those who best reflect the diverse global priorities of the online safety space.
What events such as these provide is an inspiring meeting place for everyone engaged in this challenging, but ultimately rewarding work. And it is a place where friendships are made, partnerships are created and the latest ideas, products and services are on display.
So, to conclude, it takes a village - both online and off. The work in the creation of a national framework for online safety in Italy or elsewhere can appear daunting, but if we face up to the risks and mitigate the harms, we can reap the extraordinary rewards of our and our children's online lives.