August 12, 2007
An Interview with Parry Aftab (3 of 4)

This is the third part of a four-part series with Parry Aftab, the Executive Director of the WiredSafety organization.

Sam Ford: Are you still working with MySpace?

Parry Aftab: When Rupert Murdoch took over MySpace, everything was put on hold with everyone for about 10 months while they were tring to figure out what to do. I personally wasn't very pleased with the company's responsiveness once Murdoch took over. I work with MySpace still, but we don't work with them in the same way we had before. They've hired their own lawyers now, and they are working with all the politically correct groups to work with. No one is embedded with them like we were in those days, but our mark is still there.

Sam Ford: What are you working on currently?

Parry Aftab: In the fall, we are announcing a seal program for WiredSafety, based on the standards we have set for the social networking industry. We want to find sites that are doing what we think are as good of a job as you can do in that space, the sites that have professionals behind them who can do it right, and recognize them. If these social networking sites are not professionally run, they may make short cuts that put safety at risk. We want to create more responsible social networks that manage risks in the way that all social networks should. I recently married a Canadian man who runs a non-profit organization providing computer games to teach children safer behaviors, and living in Canada makes it more of a challenge to do the international travel and other activities I had been doing when I was living in New York. However, we live in New Brunswick, which is a very tech-savvy province, so I am planning to create a new for-profit company which will be an institute for the Web 2.0 industry, helping to train chief safety officers and abuse monitoring and reporting staff. We also want to help find new technologies to help these sites, establish best practices and standards for the industry, counsel leaders of the industry through retreats, provide overflow services like third-party monitoring and policing of a network, and anything else we can do to help the industry learn how to keep both children and adults safer. I am tired of people who don't know what they are doing monitoring things, while my volunteers do know what they are doing.

Sam Ford: Of course, children are going to be using social networks whether we want them to or not, but what do you think makes these sites worth protecting?

Parry Aftab: Social networks are the future of the Internet. It is no longer CNN building a Web site and then everyone looking at it and enjoying it. It's not television anymore; it's community. The Internet before was one-way. You could send e-mail, or post something on a bulletin board, but it wasn't really about creating communities. Now, it is. It's no longer about some big company's idea, but about all of our abilities to collaborate and work. You can do it all online. If our children don't have the skills to communicate with others they know in real life in a safe way online, understanding what can and cannot be shared and what should or should not be said, we are all in a lot of trouble. There are kids who think it's hysterical to video themselves having sex or with five bottles of beer in their mouth, but then they find they aren't getting the jobs they want or getting into the colleges they want because their behaviors can be tracked back to them. In short, I think we need to work hard to teach accountability and responsibility.

Sam Ford: What do you think the government's role in this is? It seems like you have primarily worked to encourage the industry to engage in self-regulation.

Parry Aftab: With technology moving as fast as it does, the government must be very careful about how it sets rules and enforces them. It takes the government forever to catch up. If they have a touch on these issues at all, I think it should be through very light, general policies, not micromanagement. To say that a school can't use social networking, for instance, is ludicrous. Educators know what we should have in school, and we can't say from a national level that it can't happen. What we should say is that all schools are required to address the risks of the Internet and interactive technologies, and then let you find the best way to deal with it at your school. Some schools may want to filter and lock things down, but others might be interested in focusing on what is acceptable use. Perhaps the government can require that everyone address these issues, but they should not be telling them what to do on this issue any more than they should be telling educators what to teach. That's what teachers and administrators do, not Congress.

What I would like to see is Congress putting laws that give more teeth to privacy issues. I would like to see them talking about exploited data through online sites, and how people should be notified if their personal information has been exploited. I am thrilled with those kinds of things, any decision that might help companies decide that the better way to do business would be to keep their mouths shut instead of sharing information publicly.

Another thing to keep in mind, though, is that safe does not mean lame or plain vanilla but rather a thoughtful balancing of risks. I want children to be able to share enough to have meaningful communications with another kid but not to the point that someone could end up at their front door. I want to commend, for instance, the FTC. They do a good job with their involvement in these issues, and they really know what they are doing. The FTC has worked with us for a long time, so when it comes to regulatory authority, I'm happy to have the FTC involved.