August 12, 2007
An Interview with Parry Aftab (2 of 4)

This is the second part of an interview with Parry Aftab, Executive Director of WiredSafety, an organization which focuses on safety issues related to children on the Internet and particularly on social networks.

Sam Ford: Tell us about what has now grown into WiredSafety and the work that you all do.

Parry Aftab: We are a network of 12,000 unpaid volunteers from 76 countries around the world. We have no offices; we operate virtually. None of us are paid a dime, including me. And we all come together to do different aspects of the job. I had personally been interested in Internet safety before I saw the picture of the little girl. I had gotten involved in writing a book on Internet safety and also did a piece on CNN. At the time, my argument was that you could protect children on the Internet, but it requires a little more of a thoughtful response and not knee-jerk reactions to just shut the technologies down. I self-published a book on these issues that ended up becoming a bible on Internet safety for some called A Parent's Guide to the Internet.

My early days were spent working to protect the Internet to well-meaning people, some of them in Congress, who were interested in curtailing or even shutting down the Internet. When I saw that image, though, I went from working primarily on protecting the Internet to protecting children from horrible things, such as online child pornography, cyber bullying, and a range of other issues. My work focused on trying to keep children from being sexually exploited and trafficked online, for instance.

Sam Ford: What are some of the programs that WiredSafety has in that regard?

Parry Aftab: For one example, we have a Teen Angels program, a group of children who are teen experts in Internet safety. These children have to get a year's worth of training to be part, including 18 class hours, two independent research projects, and a larger team project. These kids have gotten some great opportunities, though, such as advising on safer cell phones, working with Microsoft on safety issues for children surrounding Xbox Live, and various projects for Disney, AOL, Discovery, PBS, and a large list of other companies.

Sam Ford: How did you become interested in social networking in particular, Parry?

Parry Aftab: It was December 2004, when MySpace was still barely a twinkle in Chris (DeWolfe)'s eyes. There was a 13-year-old from New Jersey doing a presentation during one of our Teen Angel meetings, when she started talking about her Xanga page. I lost it. I said, "Your Xanga page? You are one of my elite Teen Angels, and you have a social networking page? Are you out of your mind?" But this girl planed both of her feet firmly in the ground and swore to me that she was safe. I told her she can't be safe sharing her personal information online, and she told me she even had pictures up online.

I was screaming from the back of the room: "Give me one good reason you have a social networking profile! JUST ONE!" The other kids had moved out of the way, but they slipped back into the room, and what that girl said changed everything for me again. She said, "I'm 13. I'm in seventh grade. I'm not the most popular kid in school. I'm not the prettiest. I'm not a cheerleader. I'm not the president of the student council. I'm not the head of the debate team. I'm just a kid who is a little shy. It's hard for someone like me to get someone in school to pay attention to you, to want to be your friend." She said that she used her Xanga page to post pictures of the places she had traveled with her parents and began writing about them. She thought kids in her school might look at it and think that she is worth being their friend.

I asked the other teens there how many of them had a profile, and about two-thirds of their hands went up, admitting to it shyly because they knew they had been going on television as Teen Angels telling others not to show their personal information while they had put information up on their social networking profile. But one kid had a page explaining what it was like growing up with cancer. Another teen in the room had a father in the military and had to move around all the time, so a social networking site allowed them to stay in touch with old friends and find them again. There was another girl in the room who said she was going to organize efforts to save all the homeless cats in the world in the aftermath of hurricanes and tornadoes. Another said it was the only site in which they had a venue to express themselves to others. All of these kids had a different reason to be using a social networking site, but all of them was a valid reason. It was all the same reasons that adults have, except perhaps it not being valid for kids to be cyber dating.

Sam Ford: How did this revelation that your Teen Angels were using networking sites lead to your work on social networking?

Parry Aftab: I wanted to find out how to make social networks safer. I have a friend whose niece went to Catholic school where his sister was a technologist, and he asked if I had heard about MySpace. This was in 2005, and MySpace had about 5 million users at that point. I wasn't terribly concerned about the site at the time because no kids really seemed to be going to it, and it was primarily aimed at independent musicians 18-34. I came down to the school to talk with her, though, and then I called MySpace and left a voicemail for their general counsel. They told me they didn't want kids at their site and didn't know why they were there. Turns out, it was largely because this was the first site that allowed them the HTML code to make any background for their page that they wanted, rather than the flat template that all the other sites said.

I wanted to talk with MySpace about how to make the site safer, as children were signing up. I told them that they weren't in compliance and that they needed to fix some aspects of their site to be in COPA compliance. I wanted to help them be safer. The board for WiredSafety went nuts, though, because they didn't like the idea of giving our expertise as a volunteer, non-profit organization to a commercial company who was putting kids at risk. I told them, though, that it is better to be on the inside making MySpace safer than to be on the outside pointing fingers at them. They agreed, and we gave MySpace safety tips. I flew in on my own dime when MySpace's offices were still located in Santa Monica, and we sat down and talked about privacy settings. As I developed safety tips and put them up, I started getting thousands of e-mails a day, many of them from parents thinking that I was a representative of MySpace and complaining to me about the site. But I have to give MySpace credit; they adopted the suggestions I made for them, and I ended up writing some of their safety and law enforcement for them, off what I had originally drafted for AOL.