Microsoft’s chief online safety officer reflects on first year in role

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post from Stephen Balkam, chief executive officer of the Family Online Safety Institute.

Some years ago, I wrote a piece proposing that every tech company (and the White House) needed a Chief Online Safety Officer. Microsoft heeded the call. I sat down recently with Jacqueline Beauchere, Chief Online Safety Officer for Microsoft, to talk with her about her one-year work anniversary of being the COSO for Microsoft.

How does Microsoft, or how do you, define the role of Chief Online Safety Officer?

My role is about every aspect of online safety at the company – what I like to think of as substantive, operational and relational – both internally and externally focused.

But, before we can understand what that means, we have to know what we mean when we say “online safety.” I believe it’s about risk management. It’s about enabling people to maximize their desirable online experiences, while minimizing those associated with illegal, inappropriate or illegitimate content, contact, conduct or commerce – what we call “The Four Cs.”

What progress have you made?

In my first 45 days, I had the luxury of conducting what I called a “listening tour.” I spoke to more than 85 people inside and outside the company about their work in, and views on, online safety. The results have been quite positive, including new Microsoft internal Online Safety Policy, Standards and Procedures that formally codify much of the work that has been taking place in this space for the past two decades.

I also pulled together two, larger-scale, internal meetings to share how I look at family and safety. My message was clear: “family” doesn’t always enter the “safety” discussion; not everyone who goes online is part of a “family” in the traditional sense. But, when we look at “family” in the context of technology, “safety” should always be part of that discussion.

Externally, from search to safety-settings, child online protection was a big focus for governments this past year, especially in the United Kingdom. For instance, in July, U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron delivered a landmark address in a bid to rid the Web of child sexual abuse material. He then hosted a summit to review industry progress, where Microsoft Bing announced new processes and technology improvements designed to prevent the spread of this content.

And while I’ve logged a lot of miles and attended a lot of meetings in the last year, there’s still much more to be done in terms of awareness-raising, information-sharing and education – all toward the goal of encouraging people to adopt safer habits and practices when they go online.

Is the industry following suit?

Overall, I’ve seen an increased focus on consumer security, privacy and online safety, especially as they relate to children.

While progress is being made, and the tech industry is beefing up its focus on this issue, it’s important that we have clear goals and strategies for what we want to accomplish – and I’ve always been a fan of banding together and combining resources for maximum appeal and impact, particularly when it comes to reaching young people.

I’d like to see more companies, especially tech companies, come to the table to have a conversation. Given that the Internet is a shared domain, the conversation about online safety must include a broad set of stakeholders.

What challenges have there been?

Time is always a factor. I think everyone wishes more progress could be made faster, but that’s not the world in which we’re living.

We need to make sure we’ve analyzed situations carefully and that we’re making the right decision for right now.

Odds are, with the rapid pace of development and the constant evolution of technology and services, things will change and a particular strategy will need tweaking. That’s fine – provided the original approach was thoughtful and principled.

Why should tech companies have a COSO role?

I believe it’s key for all tech companies – and maybe even some others – to have a leader in online safety. Selfishly speaking, I would love to see more COSOs across the industry because I think there is much to be gained by having all of us connect and collaborate, share and learn from one another. That said, for individual companies and organizations, they should consider it because it’s the right thing to do – for their customers and for their business.

Final thoughts?

As I’ve said before, absolute monikers like “safe,” “secure” and “private” should be stricken from our digital lexicon.

Instead, we should regard online safety as an exercise in risk management: survey the landscape; educate ourselves about, and evaluate, the risks; determine our individual acceptance levels, and then decide how best to manage those risks.

Today’s world of digital dependence presents new challenges and concerns that cannot be met or addressed in isolation. Therefore, engagement with a variety of external audiences, including strategic partnerships with organizations such as yours (FOSI) are also critical to help bring this vision of a “culture of safety” to fruition.

Join in the conversation. What do you think “online safety” means? Share your thoughts with @Safer_Online.