Online ‘safety’ as a state of being

We’re all very aware of people’s desires to be “safe” and “secure,” and to exist and engage in environments – both online and off – that are built on trust. To define these points as absolute states of being, however, is impractical and unrealistic. Rather, when it comes to life online, we should focus first on the almost-innumerable advantages of the Internet; realize the online world is not without risk, and then seek to minimize and manage identified risks accordingly.

Perhaps somewhat of an exercise in semantics, but the need for this distinction became abundantly clear at the 2013 Internet Governance Forum (IGF) in Bali, Indonesia, which took place from Oct. 22 to Oct. 25. I was observing a panel discussion entitled “Protection of the Most Vulnerable Children Online,” organized and moderated by Yuliya Morenets, Executive Director of the NGO Together Against Cybercrime and an associate professor at Strasbourg University. My colleague, Kim Sanchez, appeared on the panel and took a question from an audience member. He asked, perhaps somewhat facetiously, if the Internet was risk-free. A robust discussion ensued in which I, and others, were compelled to interject.

Unconditional monikers like safe, secure and private should be stricken from our digital lexicon. Furthermore, any Internet service provider, technology company or other online actor that claims to guarantee 100 percent safety, security, privacy or reliability is setting itself up for failure. Instead, we should regard online safety as an exercise in risk management: Survey the landscape; educate ourselves about, and evaluate, the risks that are out there; determine our individual acceptance levels, and then, decide how best to manage identified risks.

At Microsoft, we define the very discipline of online safety in terms of risk management. We see our role as helping people to maximize their desirable online experiences, while minimizing those stemming from what we call “The Four Cs” – risks from content, contact, conduct and commerce. We do this by providing technology tools, raising public awareness through campaigns and social media, partnering with others on a variety of initiatives, and by creating and sharing our own informational and educational resources.

At the end of the day, we’re all striving for the same thing: Behavioral change such that individuals, families and communities know how to best protect themselves when they go online. We want safer habits and practices to become as second nature as locking doors and wearing seatbelts. We look to create a “culture of online safety,” where young people support and encourage one another; parents and adults model exemplary social behaviors both online and off; technology companies provide simple, easy-to-use tools; educators embrace and champion the transformative power of technology and governments help to foster economic growth through innovation.

On day two of IGF 2013, a young man from the Dutch delegation told me he’d been thinking about my “safe versus safer” comments from the day before, noting that he recognized the importance of the distinction. “I usually don’t like having discussions about semantics,” he told me, “but this, I believe, is an important one.”

Labeling the Internet as anything less than the signature invention of our generation would be a mistake. It has changed forever the way we work, play, learn, grow and interact. No, it’s not without risk – nothing is. Individuals and families need to decide for themselves how they want to engage. Practicing good “digital citizenship” – safer, responsible and appropriate use of technology and services – is a positive first step. Microsoft has been promoting digital citizenship and advocating for online safety education for many years.

To learn more about our work, visit our Safety & Security Center; “like” us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

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