#MSFTCOSO POV: Safety experts call for research on true harms of 'the darker Web'

The following post is from Jacqueline Beauchere, Chief Online Safety Officer at Microsoft. Once a month on The Fire Hose, Beauchere gives her point of view on topics related to the global consumer online safety, privacy and security landscape. Follow the conversation on Twitter using #MSFTCOSO.


Online risk does not equate to offline (or online) harm. This compelling theme emerged quite prominently for me at the recent Digitally Connected symposium, co-sponsored by Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society and UNICEF. In fact, a number of online safety and other experts acknowledged “risk as opportunity”— the notion that introducing some degree of calculated online risk will likely be beneficial to young people, resulting in increased resilience, confidence and a sense of empowerment and fulfillment.

Accordingly, research and resources need to be directed to better understand the true harms that may stem from young peoples’ online activities. And, any follow-on public-policy efforts need to be based on an accurate portrayal of those risks most likely to cause harm.

To date, related research has largely focused on young peoples’ online activities and the risks they face. Microsoft and others look at risks stemming from some combination of “The Four Cs” – content, contact, conduct and commerce. While innocuous in and of themselves, it’s the illegal content, inappropriate or unwanted contact and illegitimate commerce that should cause concern. Experts agree there is certainly value in risk-based work; it has largely set the stage for what we know about young peoples’ current Internet habits and practices. Media’s spotlight, however, on the most severe and tragic cases of youth online activity have sparked largely reflexive responses, particularly in the public policy arena. Going forward, even under the most heartbreaking of circumstances, “facts must displace emotion,” and robust evidence must supplant reactionary policies, many experts agreed.

Toward this end, I hosted a “Food for Thought” session at the symposium, where I shared with interested attendees our plans for fresh research and an examination of some more “darker side of the Web” issues. I look at the range of issues children face online in terms of a spectrum. I call it “from selfies to CSAM”– at one end, those sometimes risky images that kids take of themselves to the most horrific form of content on the other: child sexual abuse material. Teasing, taunting, bullying, over-use, over-exposure, reputation management and other issues fall somewhere in between. More on this new research in the coming months, but know that we’re thinking carefully about trends suggesting actual or probable harm, and what we might do to raise awareness and inform parents and others about such issues.

Other themes surfaced, as well. Namely, the power of resilience and the need to build children up so that they can more readily address those instances when perhaps something they encounter online upsets them or makes them uncomfortable. The ongoing challenge of mobile technology was another recurring refrain. In fact, many said current strategies intent on blocking or restricting young peoples’ access to certain online content or activities may be for naught, as kids now easily move between home, school, sporting events and social functions with the Internet in their pockets, purses and backpacks.

Many were also intent on having stakeholders from various disciplines collaborate more closely and combine resources and assets where appropriate. I, for one, have always been a fan of collaborating wherever possible to achieve maximum impact and reach. I met many new colleagues at the Berkman event with whom I hope to explore further the intriguing theme of risk as opportunity.

The symposium, held at Harvard Law School, brought together 150 academics, practitioners, government officials, representatives from technology companies and others from around the world to begin to chart a path “towards a global community of knowledge and practice around children, youth, and digital media.” Over the three days, the group shared research, insights and experience on topics ranging from privacy, identity and reputation among young people to risky behaviors, online safety, health, well-being, innovation and more.

For more information about Microsoft’s work in Internet safety and protecting youth online, visit our Safety & Security Center; “like” us on Facebook; follow us on Twitter, and look for my “point of view” following the #MSFTCOSO hashtag.