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

This is the final part of the four-part series featuring an interview with WiredSafety's Parry Aftab.

Sam Ford: If the government's involvement is limited, what are your views on how to manage self-regulation?

Parry Aftab: The industry needs to do a lot of self-regulation because they have the power to respond quickly and create standards that will be enforced. Further, they should want to, because their insurance and banks and venture capitalists will expect them to answer to these questions when these social networking companies start getting popular. That's just good business to be prepared for these safety issues. Whenever the business environment require the companies involved to be smarter and more careful, I am always for self-regulations. I think MySpace had the best of intentions, and we worked with them for free. A lot of people are safer because we did that. The key to keep in mind is that these companies, for the most part, will do the right thing and the safe thing. No one wants to have something terrible happen through their site, and the people who work for these companies are often parents themselves, and we've all been kids ourselves once. A lot of what needs to be done for safety really are simple things these companies can do, simpler than many people think.

One thing I don't want to see is a national database of children, with their ages listed, to help keep kids in social networks managed. No one knows more about online technologies than sex traffickers, because they try to keep their sites hidden from public view, so I think it's a dangerous idea to gather national databases containing our children's information. I do think we can get parents to use these technologies themselves to understand and see what their kids are doing, and for parents to teach their children to be safer while they are using these tools. You often find that the safer sites are the ones the kids would rather go to, anyway. Facebook seems to be zooming to the top right now, in part because people like the control they have over their privacy. And, with Club Penguin providing a social networking site for young children, it's clear that the world continues to change through these sites.

Sam Ford: What do you think the role of the media is in this process, both in making the public aware of the growing importance of safety issues and perhaps in overhyping the dangers of these technologies as well?

Parry Aftab: I would say that two things happened to change public perception of these social networking sites. I wrote that first book on child safety online that I mentioned earlier back in 1997, and some of our volunteers have been working together since 1995. That's 12 years, which is forever in Internet time. No matter what we did or how many television shows we were on, though--and we were featured in Newsweek, Good Housekeeping, Cosmo Girl, and others--we never really had major impact. Parents just kept saying, "Not my kid." Or they would just close their eyes and ears because it was too hard to deal with. They never got it. We would have events, and we would expect all these parents to come to them, but nobody cared.

Then, two things happened. First, there was MySpace. All of a sudden, parents started seeing their kids online, and perhaps knowing that it was their kid posing topless or doing crazy things to the neighbor's cat. These parents who thought they had terrific 14 or 15 or 16-year-olds were now getting freaked out about whether their kids would be able to get into the right college with the types of things they were posting online.

Then, there was Dateline's "How to Catch a Predator." I was very critical of that show. I was not a fan, and I thought it was frightening everybody, but it did have huge ratings. The parents were watching and listening for the first time. Between MySpace and Dateline, parents saw both that it was their kid and that it was all kids.

However, there is a lot of media hype, and there are a lot of people involved in it who don't know what they are talking about. It seems like everybody is a pundit, and a lot of the industry counters by managing by press release. They will announce, for instance ,that they are safer now and that there are no predators. Well, if kids are there, there will be predators there. They are there, but we can protect our children by teaching them safer behaviors. The biggest risk we have, for instance, are with kids willingly going to meet with adults. We know that they are doing this, having cyber sex, and all kinds of outrageous things that they do knowingly. We need to remember this and that they are kids who think they understand the consequences until they get into some really awful things.

Sam Ford: Any parting thoughts, Parry?

Parry Aftab: I would love to help with anybody interested in Web 2.0. The key is that this is something it takes all of us to solve, and I hope I can use my organization as a centralized entity to help us all combine resources. It's time we all join forces again and do what we did in the early days of the Internet when we were fighting off censorship and all the other crazy things that were going. This time, though, we are fighting to make our technology more secure and safer, so that children and adults alike can get the most possible out of these new communication technologies.

For more information on Parry Aftab's work, see the resources available at WiredSafety.