Safety by design - embedding protection for online users at the design stage

We are rarely disconnected from a digital device of some kind. In this day and age, this is especially true for our kids.

For the most part, the benefits of increased connectivity outweigh the risk. However, our latest research reveals that 33% of young people on social media experience unwanted contact and content. These issues are not unique to Australia, in fact, it’s important that we are an integral part of the global effort to identify and combat them.     

It’s important for online platforms and services to recognise and promote the rights of all users.  But placing safety, in relation to the protection children and other vulnerable communities, at the heart of product development and functionality, needs to become the new design imperative. 

As Australia’s eSafety Commissioner, responsible for promoting online safety, I am committed to helping shape safer online platforms and services for citizens. To achieve this, I believe safety by design should be embedded in all online platforms and services – at the outset, and before released to market.

Similar to the incorporation of security and privacy as well-established processes in the technology world, safety by design ought to be a natural extension of these development processes. By doing so, we put these important considerations at the centre of product development, rather than retrofitting child protection safeguards into online services and products long after online harm emerges, or the damage is done.  Retrofitting safety will never be optimal.

As a foundation for this necessary paradigm shift, we are developing a safety by design framework (the framework) to provide practical guidance for technology companies.  The enabling legislation of the eSafety Office already calls for platforms to adhere to “minimum safety standards,” but we believe now is the time for technology providers to do much more.  We will draw on the expertise, research and practice of the eSafety Office whilst collaborating with industry, stakeholders, children and young people to ensure such principles are balanced, reasonable and above all, effective.

While safety should be a product development imperative for all users, the framework will be grounded in children’s rights and harness industry’s responsibility to safeguard its users. It will assist industry to embed user safety into technologies from the early stages of development by adopting tools to help children and young people navigate the online world in a safe way.  After all, children are often the early adopters of these products and technologies, and are also most vulnerable to their potentially harmful impacts.

The consultation process will commence with members of the Online Safety Consultative Working Group, followed by conversations with key stakeholders, including industry, the advocacy community, academics, children and young people.    

To help shape our consultations, four overarching principles have been identified as part of the planned safety by design framework:

  1. Platform responsibility
  2. Recognition and respect for user identity
  3. User empowerment
  4. Transparency and accountability

The intention is that these principles will extend to industry and companies of all sizes and maturity, to help ensure safety is embedded in their platform before they are deployed to market.  By necessity, the safety imperative must be balanced with privacy and security, all principles we believe are, in fact, complementary rather than mutually exclusive. The provision of robust, transparent and intuitive safety features, tools, policies and procedures as well as examples of best practice would be used to encourage others to participate in the framework.  This is a great opportunity for mature companies to continue innovating for and investing in safety whilst providing useful experience and guidance for those start-ups or nascent app developers to assess risk and build in safety protections at the get-go.

While there are examples of best practice in market, there is more work to do. We look forward to discussing these and the overarching principles with you, in an effort to better protect Australians, and users across the world, online.

For further information, visit Safety by Design