The Online Safety and Technology Working Group (OSTWG) has just released its final report to Congress entitled, “Youth Safety on a Living Internet.” As I mentioned here last year, this government task force was established by the “Protecting Children in the 21st Century Act,” (part of the ‘‘Broadband Data Improvement Act’,’ Pub. L. No. 110-385) and its mission was to review and evaluate:
- The status of industry efforts to promote online safety through educational efforts, parental control technology, blocking and filtering software, age-appropriate labels for content or other technologies or initiatives designed to promote a safe online environment for children;
- The status of industry efforts to promote online safety among providers of electronic communications services and remote computing services by reporting apparent child pornography, including any obstacles to such reporting;
- The practices of electronic communications service providers and remote computing service providers related to record retention in connection with crimes against children; and,
- The development of technologies to help parents shield their children from inappropriate material on the Internet.
The task force included over 30 experts from academia, industry, advocacy groups, and think tanks. It was my great honor to be a member of OSTWG and to serve as the chair of 1 of the 4 subcommittees. The four subcommittees addressed: data retention, child pornography reporting, educational efforts, and parental controls technologies. I chaired that last subcommittee on parental controls.
Our conclusions will not be surprising to those who have read previous online safety task force reports, which I have summarized in 2009 white paper, “Five Online Safety Task Forces Agree: Education, Empowerment & Self-Regulation Are the Answer.” Generally speaking, we concluded that there is no silver-bullet technical solution to online child safety concerns. Instead – and again in agreement with previous research and task force reports – we have concluded that a diverse toolbox and a “layered approach” must be brought to bear on these problems and concerns. Here’s how we put it in the report:
- There’s no one-size-fits-all, once-and-for-all solution to providing children with every aspect of online child safety. Rather, it takes a comprehensive “toolbox” from which parents, educators, and other safety providers can choose tools appropriate to children’s developmental stages and life circumstances, as they grow. That toolbox needs to include safety education, “parental control” technologies such as filtering and monitoring, safety features on connected devices and in online services, media ratings, family and school policy, and government policy. In essence, any solution to online safety must be holistic in nature and multi-dimensional in breadth.
- To youth, social media and technologies are not something extra added on to their lives; they’re embedded in their lives. Their offline and online lives have converged into one life. They are socializing in various environments, using various digital and real-life “tools,” from face-to-face gatherings to cell phones to social network sites, to name just a few.
- Because the Internet is increasingly user-driven, with its “content” changing in real-time, users are increasingly stakeholders in their own well-being online. Their own behavior online can lead to a full range of experiences, from positive ones to victimization, pointing to the increasingly important role of safety education for children as well as their caregivers. The focus of future task forces therefore needs to be as much on protective education as on protective technology.
- The Internet is, in effect, a “living thing,” its content a constantly changing reflection not only of a constantly changing humanity but also its individual and collective publications, productions, thoughts, behaviors, and sociality.
I encourage everyone to check out the entire report, which I have also embedded down below. I very much hope policymakers will heed the advice found in this and the previous task force reports, which have uniformly found that only such a layered, multi-dimensional approach to online child safety can be effective. The three key prongs to that strategy — or what I call the “3-E Strategy” — are education, empowerment and law enforcement efforts.
Importantly, OSTWG accomplished our charge without resorting to the “moral panic” tone that some have adopted when approaching these issues and concerns. While there are serious challenges and concerns surrounding discussions about child safety, it’s important to acknowledge the important benefits of new media and communications technologies to us and our children. We have done so in this report.
We also were careful not to try to unsettle any settled First Amendment law. One of the most regrettable developments of the past 15 years is that so much time has been wasted passing and then litigating legislative and regulatory enactments that have been so clearly unconstitutional under the First Amendment. If the time and resources that were squandered in those legal skirmishes would have instead been plowed into education, empowerment, and enforcement-based efforts, it could have made a lasting difference.
More generally, we should always remember the sage advice offered by the Supreme Court in 2000: “Technology expands the capacity to choose; and it denies the potential of this revolution if we assume the Government is best positioned to make these choices for us.” OSTWG has charted a sensible way forward in the final report that should hopefully avoid those problems. It is my hope that policymakers take our findings and recommendations seriously and adopt the sort of constructive, practical approach we have outlined in this report.
Finally, I want to send out a big THANK YOU! to Hemanshu Nigam and Anne Collier, who very ably and patiently co-chaired the OSTWG. They did a terrific job herding a lot of cats and bringing this report to a successful completion. Well done Hemu and Anne!