Working across borders and boundaries

The aspiration for a safer and more civil internet is now universal. Advanced technologies are spreading through most aspects of our everyday lives, some with transformational benefits. Others, however, have had devastating side-effects and caused immense problems.

Those problems are global, so figuring out how we collectively ratchet back the negatives and bolster the positives requires a meeting of the best global minds. This is exactly what happened at eSafety19, a major international gathering of experts held in Sydney in mid-September. Co-hosted for the third year running by eSafety and Netsafe New Zealand, the two-day conference featured 60 speakers and more than 400 guests from around the world.

The conference brought together some of the greatest minds in the burgeoning field of online safety. Their conversations were vibrant, practical, productive — and occasionally feisty.

At eSafety19, we had industry leaders brainstorming with school-teachers, psychologists engaging with researchers, parents consulting with the legal community, and government officials building future collaborative opportunities with NGOs. This was invigorating, because, as well as being global, the push towards a safer internet must be collaborative, bringing different sectors together across the online ecosystem.

Online and offline converge

Online safety also traverses social and cultural boundaries, intersecting with related themes and community priorities. Panellists and keynote speakers at the eSafety19 conference repeatedly challenged the notion that the harms experienced in the online world could be segregated from the ills of the offline world. The issues we confront in the struggle for a more empowering internet cannot be quarantined from the fight for a safer and more civil society. Our online and offline lives are converging.

Panellists on cyberbullying reminded us that children who experienced bullying online commonly experience harassment in the schoolyard as well; experts on image-based abuse and online hate-speech pointed out that broader social problems, including sexism and racism, drive these harmful online behaviours. And most participants agreed that, while those building and operating these platforms do need to take more responsibility for safety, we should be targeting the behaviours rather than the technologies.

The challenge, then, is to develop programs and initiatives that tackle online safety within the broader issues that define their context, and to do so in ways that involve the whole of the community and can be measured and evaluated. At the conference, we heard of tangible ways we could achieve this by learning from past successful education and cultural campaigns.

Meanwhile, we at eSafety were able to put forward ideas for improving the understanding of online vulnerability, engaging in online disruption of potential agents of harm, furthering the ethos of safety by design and a developing a tangible online safety education framework. The feedback we harvested from our national and international partners will be put to good use.

Creating the internet we want

At the start of eSafety19, I put a challenge to all of those attending: “What are the tangible actions each of us can take today that will help move us from the online world we have now to the online world we truly want to see?” Over the two days, the ideas came rolling in and gathered enthusiastic momentum. Sessions covered the progress being made across the whole gamut of issues currently on the radar of regulators, legislators, researchers and everyday citizens, including:

  • tackling abhorrent violent online material in the wake of the horrific New Zealand terror attack, leading to the Christchurch Call;
  • new research on the attitudes and motivations of perpetrators of image-based abuse;
  • turning the tide in the battle against online child sexual abuse;
  • the imperative of corporate responsibility and user empowerment through safety by design;
  • furthering the spread of ‘ethical tech’ — both now, and for the developers and engineers of tomorrow;
  • addressing the challenge to online safety posed by the rise of artificial intelligence; and
  • ensuring evidence-based online safety education is available for youth, educators, parents and employers.

Given the subject matter, it’s no wonder the conference hashtag, #eSafety19, trended in New Zealand and Australia at number #1 on the first day and sustained its reach and relevance throughout the next day’s breakout sessions. More than 3,600 tweets were generated from the conference over the two days, reaching a further potential 27 million people.

There are certainly times when the vision we held for the internet 25 years ago — as an empowering new world, bursting with promise — feels to many as if it has been supplanted with so much darkness. But rather than letting this darkness fester, international collaborative action is pushing back against it, and at eSafety19 we felt that the pendulum is starting to swing back in the right direction. There was a sense that we can hold the online world up to its initial promise, as long as we all play our part in executing on this vision.

We can shape the positives; we can tackle the larger social problems that drive internet hatred; we can enable a multitude of voices, while protecting those who become the targets of needless shouting; and we can have an internet that is safer for us, and represents a world of opportunity for our children.

We look forward to continuing the conversations about the online world we all want to see when we reconvene in Wellington, New Zealand, under the auspices of Netsafe, for Online Safety 2020, on September 9-10 next year.